Don’t try to out-Chinese the Chinese in your Lunar New Year advertising. You’ll lose

By overusing stereotypes in Lunar New Year advertising, brands show they know less about their target audience, not more, explains Identity's Thang Ngo.

Let’s play a drinking game. Scull a shot glass of [Chinese spirit] Moutai every time you see any of these Chinese icons used in Chinese New Year advertising this year: red, gold, 8, red packet, lanterns, and paper-cut rat. 

We’re in for a merry time. Adidas is banging its gong (literally) with a spectacular TVC in China that crams every Chinese symbol into a one-minute spot: red ribbons, gold Adidas logo, dancing Chinese maidens, folding fans, wooden lattice doors and kung fu moves. So what’s wrong with using these icons? Nothing. And everything.

For a start, it’s not just a festival in China. The first day of the lunar calendar is also celebrated in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea and their diaspora communities around the world.

In Australia, it’s celebrated by 1.5m migrants from these Asian countries. Three of the top four languages spoken in Australia are Asian: Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese. And the number of Mandarin speakers in Australia increased by 170% in the decade between the 2006 and 2016 censuses.

Nielsen’s 2017 Ethnic-Australian Consumer Report found migrant-Australian FMCG [fast moving consumer goods] expenditure is growing at a faster rate than Australian-born. The report predicts that, by 2022, migrant-Australians’ spend will grow at a faster rate than their Australian-born counterparts, accounting for over $4.4bn in incremental revenue.

This will result in the migrant-Australian shopper contributing a total of $18.7bn (or 28%) of the total FMCG retail channel. The research found grocery spend for migrant-Australians was growing at a rate 1.8 times faster than all Australians; while Asian-Australians’ spend is growing 4.7 times faster than average.

No wonder marketers are increasingly seeing the commercial value of Lunar New Year. 

But putting that aside, what’s wrong with using Asian cultural icons? As Alain de Botton said, “The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones.”

Even primary school children know these icons are associated with Lunar New Year. Ironically, overusing these symbols shows brands know less about their target audience, not more. Think of it as plastering all your Christmas retail ads in green with Christmas trees and baubles. 

Simply: Don’t try to out-Chinese the Chinese. From a branding perspective, an overwhelming number of ads in red and gold are ineffective, because they are lost in a sea of same-same. In the end, nothing stands out, and it’s all generic in the audience’s mind.


Apple takes a different route. Its campaign in China continues the theme of telling poignant stories about contemporary China. This year, it’s generational differences in attitudes about a traditional family – the protagonist is a single mother. It’s an engrossing eight-minute story with a cinematic feel, shot on an iPhone.

Apple has put its product front and centre in the right context. And it doesn’t need the usual Lunar New Year props to do it.

Research has found that the use of strong stereotypes can be polarising. In an Australian neuroscience study, Chinese viewers responded negatively when presented with a TV commercial depicting an Asian stereotype. 

So, using these stereotypes is probably not the best way to connect with a valuable and growing audience.

To engage effectively, go beyond census stats and two-dimensional icons. A Chinese-Australian has different aspirations than someone living in China. While they are proud of their Chinese culture, they are also looking to be successful and want to feel welcomed in their new homeland.

Brands need to connect with Asian audiences by going to them. Consider WeChat, Weibo, Youku and other digital platforms, along with out of home formats in suburbs with a high concentration of your target audience. Activate at New Year festivals.

Avoid stereotypes. Overusing cultural symbols risks showing you lack deeper audience insight. Remember the audience is looking forward to a successful life in Australia as well as being proud of their original homeland. Brands should demonstrate they understand this aspiration.

You should also not discard your corporate identity or brand colours for red and gold. Be confident in showing how your brand helps this audience celebrate. 

This links to inclusivity. It’s not just Chinese audiences who celebrate. Your audience is broader, including Vietnamese and Korean communities.

And, finally, recognise that your staff may be celebrating, perhaps through internal comms and other owned channels.

The Year of the Rat starts on Saturday, 25 January. The rat is cunning. To determine the order of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals, the Jade Emperor asked them to race. The rat became the first animal in the zodiac by tricking the ox into giving it a ride. Just as they arrive at the finish line, the rat jumped off and got there first.

Brands need to think more like the rat, and rely less on tired and ineffective stereotypes to reach Asian audiences. 

Thang Ngo is managing director of IDENTITY Communications, Australia’s largest multicultural marketing agency and an IPG Mediabrands company


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