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How to create a successful Chinese New Year ad: emotions, imperfect stories, relevance


By Dani Gibson, Senior Writer

January 21, 2020 | 11 min read

Chinese New Year is a season steeped in tradition, during which families and friends create precious memories.

CNY 2020

How to create a successful CNY ad: personalisation, emotions, imperfect stories, relevance

According to a Google Survey, it surpasses Christmas as the most searched festive moment in Singapore. The number of searches has increased 27% year-on-year as Singaporeans become more digitally-savvy and head online for inspiration around reunion dinner recipes or fashion choices for visitations.

CNY is clearly an opportune time for powerful commercial moments that businesses can leverage, what with Singaporeans being 44% more likely to try out new products and brands during this period than at any time in the rest of the year.

Ahead of this festive season, we asked Asia’s industry experts what makes for a successful CNY ad.

Lili Jiang, group creative director, Cheil Worldwide Hong Kong

Chinese New Year is the most important celebration among the Chinese Calendar. During this period of time, people re-connect with each other, and to me, CNY generated different kinds of emotions. Among all, the 'family love’ probably is the obvious one.

The advertising which echoes with this emotion usually stands out from the competition.

Due to more than one-third of Chinese people having to desert their hometowns to work in big cities, they only go back home once a year on CNY. The ads which show the content as ‘homecoming/re-connecting with your loved ones” will resonate with people tremendously.

Meanwhile, Chinese people like an emotional storyline, so don’t worry about it if the video is too long. A beautifully written script and all these little touching details will definitely keep the audience stay with your ads. Like the public service micro-film 'Father’s Journey' which is based on a true story. Though it’s more than 6 minutes, it became a huge success on social media at 2016 Chinese New Year!

Emotion will never get out of time.

Even it’s not your own story, it moves you to tears and imprints itself in your mind.

So during CNY, as a smart brand, instead of shouting out all product USPs to dominate the customer’s ears, winning their hearts probably will be much more effective.

Melissa Lee, sector lead for finance, government and retail, Google Singapore

Singaporeans rely on Google Search and YouTube as they make their preparations ahead of the Chinese New Year celebrations, perhaps surprisingly, even more so than the people in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia. Unique among large consumer events, CNY is a season rich in positive emotional association, which makes it an especially powerful moment for brands to build brand love and equity with their customers. This presents an unprecedented opportunity for brands to create meaningful ads that build brand love and drive conversion among their customers.

We've seen many marketers adopt a digital-first mindset and successfully use YouTube to stand out by developing creatives that tap on emotions and key moments that matter during CNY.

An analysis of 7,000 public social images during CNY last year revealed that Joy, Fun and People are the core ingredients for winning content that resonates with Singaporeans. These themes embody the spirit of the festival, and brands who can best capitalise on them through storytelling will be able to win the hearts of customers and create genuine engagements.

We know personalization improves impact. By ensuring your ads are relevant to each customer’s interests, you give them a reason to click on it and find out more. For example, YouTube Director Mix allows advertisers to create a wide variety of ads customized to various audiences and brand campaigns have seen a 40% increase in clickthrough rate so we highly encourage marketers to experiment with it and see the results for their own.

Tay Guan Hin, founder and chief creative officer, TGH Collective

Imperfect stories make great CNY ads. A picture-perfect family that features good looking people in a predictable story makes for unauthentic storytelling. Life is imperfect. It's the imperfections that make things perfect. The most compelling human stories are the ones people find most relatable. It appeals to our soul.

By speaking directly to our hearts by using a familiar setting with identifiable characters that audiences can relate to. Flawed characters will find empathy with any audience by creating tension within the storyline, which will add more drama. Imperfect stories can bring beauty to any story. Just make sure it's relatable, relevant, and real.

Jerome Ooi, executive creative director, TBWA Hong Kong

A cosmopolitan with diverse composition, the Lunar New Year is one of the liveliest periods in Hong Kong. Historically celebrated with much fanfare, decorations are up before Christmas trees are packed away.

Naturally, brands are eager to jump on the bandwagon – most not having a clear brand message beyond auspicious greetings or promotions. Unfortunately, the majority of these campaigns ends up drowning together in the sea of sameness.

Obvious but often overlooked pitfalls are the basics – compelling storytelling, executional craft and cultural nuances. What lacked in typical themes of Chinese traditions and values, can be made up for in authenticity and relatability for Hong Kongers.

Now more than ever, the political climate in Hong Kong has heightened the sensitivity of consumers towards brands. In a bizarre twist, people are now actually paying more attention to what brands have to say – specifically, what is their stand. How that is interpreted, is a very fine line.

That said, it’s an opportune time for brands to step up and be counted for. Not with lip-service, but with what they do. Meaningful, purposeful actions that will benefit consumers and the community – and their own employees. Else, save the marketing budget for the long year ahead.

Chris Colman, executive producer, Final Frontier

My MO here in China is to promote animation as a storytelling medium, so I’m not going to break from that here.

There’s a reason why so many Christmas ads are told through animation. Done well, it’s visually appealing, it crosses all age and cultural divides and it taps into the imaginative child inside us, meaning we inadvertently feel a tenderness towards what we see. The objectives at CNY are the same, yet animation hasn’t been employed that much in commercials… yet.

On top of that, every year there are countless, sentimental live-action CNY films released telling family stories and, truthfully, they tend to kind of blend together. The animation is the way to stand out, not least because, besides the story itself, there are endless visual directions to explore.

The bolder brands in China are beginning to realise all this, and I think for the coming years we are going to see more and more animated CNY spots. I’m excited to see what emerges, both in terms of humour and visual aesthetic. There’s so much potential.

Sascha Kuntze, chief creative officer, BBH Singapore

Some brands just get it right. John Lewis gets Christmas and so does the Spanish Lottery. Pepsi in the Middle East gets Ramadan. Jollibee gets Valentines. Cadbury gets Diwali. British Airways gets Mother’s Day. A few examples of rare institutions that just get it. But what is it they get? Some of the campaigns done by these brands have used tear-jerking and heartwarming storytelling, some were nostalgic, others took us on magical journeys. And some were just consistently insightful.

I can’t tell you whether you need to put night working janitors into your stories, or mothers cooking for their ex-pat sons, or children who play the piano or can’t wait to gift their parents something. But what I can tell you is to be relevant, to find a shortcut to our hearts by focusing on what we actually care about, as humans not as target audiences. These things are universal and you generally don’t need a research agency to tell you what they are. Be honest. Be real. It’s the bravest thing you can do as a brand. And it’s the only thing your audience might listen to when they’re actually busy bonding with their family and friends during a very special time.

Ed Cheong, executive creative director, Iris

It’s that time of the year again for red and gold, packets of money and eating. Lots of eating. Unfortunately, it also seems like a tradition for brands to create awful CNY commercials filled with dated tropes. Cue inquisitive aunties and ungrateful kids living abroad.

Just stop it already.

Perhaps we can learn from the recent Christmas spot by a humble hardware store in Wales. With a tiny production budget, Hafod won the Christmas showdown against the likes of mighty John Lewis by focusing on the heart of why us humans love Christmas. The endearing message of “Be a kid this Christmas” isn’t the brainchild of complex strategic posturing. What it does is simply cut through the clutter with its innocence and a wonderful cover of Alphaville’s Forever Young.

Truth is, the point of the commercial is not that different from how we feel about Chinese New Year. Least how I used to as a kid. It’s a big deal that only seems to grow smaller as I grew older.

My advice is to look at how your CNY spot mirrors the times we now live in. Time Magazine referred to the Hafod piece as the Christmas Ad that is melting icy hearts across the internet. As far as reviews come, that is pretty bang on. With everything seeming more negative than ever, the cynic in us can do with a reminder of what’s pure. Whether you’re in the United Kingdom or Asia.

René Chen, creative lead and Partner at jkr René & Yolanda Branding Design

The making of a successful Chinese new year ad today is as challenging as defining the metrics to its success. Considering the varying degree of consumer savviness across city tiers and the rapid speed of changing consumer tastes, these are a few factors which I think are success factors for 2020:

  • Fresh and progressive interpretation on this traditional occasion catches attention amid the communication clutter in this period. Today’s consumers are relentlessly looking for novelty - fresh perspectives and experiences keep them engaged. We need to remind ourselves not to belittle our young Chinese consumers’ ability to accept new things.
  • A brand that genuinely embraces the Chinese culture beyond the superficial cliché festive cues tugs at the heartstrings of national pride amongst both young and old Chinese consumers today.
  • Celebrities and influencers are an instant way to attract your consumer group, they continue to be powerful tools that can create a synonymous likability for your brand regardless of the city tier your targeted consumer group is from.

Check out the latest holiday ads here, and keep an eye on The Drum's ongoing Chinese New Year coverage.

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