A pivotal time in China – Reflections on what has passed and what is to come

As everyone returned to work this past week in China after the Lunar New Year holiday, and as the Spring Festival draws to a close with the Lantern Festival on the 15th February, the conversations we have been having with our clients, candidates and colleagues have inevitably touched on this pivotal moment in the calendar.

It is a time so steeped in emotional and cultural meaning – not only the characteristics of the year ahead and the personal significance of the new Lunar Year (perfect timing for the boldness, strength and competitiveness of the Tiger), but as this beautiful image of the Lantern Festival above captures, the reflection of letting go of the past and an illumination of the future.

Consistent themes emerged as we discussed the topics of Brands, broader Business dynamics, and Leadership – what it has taken to remain strong over the past two years, and how to be courageous and competitive as we embark on this year ahead.

To set the context for those reading this outside Asia, universally, the festival is considered a time to reflect and step back, to take stock and recalibrate life. Every business closes and the frenetic pace of the market is on pause for a moment. As one of our Consumer Brand clients put it, “people are in receptive versus do mode”.

Leaders think about their organisation and their people, businesses close and many reunite with family. As Bessie Lee, the Founder of Withinlink (China VC incubator), said “how any business treats the CNY holidays in China reflects whether the business and its leaders truly value their team and live up to the claim of talent being our most important asset”.

Emily Chang, China CEO of McCann Worldgroup talked to us about it being “a chance to celebrate and recognise our people and results. It’s important to take a step back and reflect on the year that just passed. Our accomplishments, our progress, and what we learned. It’s equally important to look forward together, establishing or re-establishing our vision for the new year”. (The special surprise shown above of the customary red packet, plus the bespoke bracelet was given to McCann agency staff when they returned to work last week).

The time of reflection of course extends to how Brands behave. Like the leaders we spoke to, consumers too are in the mood for reflection over the festival. The unique nature of the high octane, digital ecosystem and advanced social & ecommerce environment means “ordinarily the investment of time and money Companies spend is on more short-term, conversion-driven campaigns” explained Hans Lopez Vito, Chief Operating Officer, BBDO Greater China. Continuing, “Chinese New Year, however, is when marketers have an opportunity to go beyond business as usual. It is the perfect moment for brands to focus on something that usually takes second priority in the marketing calendar – which is to bring the brand’s emotional narrative to life for consumers.”

Over these past two years of the pandemic, we have seen some fascinating dynamics at play for both international and domestic brands in China. Which Brands have become stronger, and how have Brand teams and Agencies sought to gain the competitive advantage?

Domestic Chinese brands such as Anta (sports) and Nio (EV) have gained strength, tapping into the feeling of confidence in the China market and national pride due to the perceived effective handling of the COVID crisis as well as the political tensions with the West. This has spilled over into how consumers choose brands. As such, domestic brands are doing the best job of capturing people’s attention across many categories nowadays. According to Baidu, the attention rate of domestic brands rose from 45% in 2016, to 75% in 2021 (at the expense of foreign brands).

For international brands, and how they use their voice is of particular significance at this time of year. How do these Brands continue to be competitive in this most competitive of markets? Where there has been more than the occasional backlash with some being “spooked” and taking a step back in their communications in China, whereas in other parts of the world they would make a more daring stand for their values.

Those international Brands that get it right in their product and communications, have doubled down on innovating their product to resonate with the trends and tastes in China. Whether that’s the style of camera on a phone, or the type of sneaker lines it focuses on.

Equally in their communications, the values and emotion of the festival are brought to life with an authenticity which shows profound respect for this time cultural significance and unity. Notable standouts include Apple, which for the last several years has released epic, short films shot on the iPhone – both resonant of Chinese values and a product demo. And taking a different tack, the funny and slightly bonkers BMW spot to celebrate the festival, is quite unlike anything you will see anywhere else in the world for the brand.

Returning to business more broadly, and what leaders draw on as they look forward into this year. Which businesses have grown in strength and what do they need to do to be competitive going forwards?

Bessie characterised this as “having a long-term vision but with short term plan”. She explains “China is a tough market to start with, the pandemic multiplied the difficulties by many folds. Flexibility, adaptability on China speed with solutions/products/business mobility tailored to China market characteristics, will determine who the last one standing is”. Looking towards the future, we talked about how “businesses need to be brave to try, and fail. Trial and error have been the approach by successful businesses in all sectors in China. Businesses need to have the courage to admit failure and the heart to celebrate failure. When you failed, reflect why the failure, gather the learning and get on your feet again and move on”.

Even in China, which did rebound quickly in 2020, it feels like a year of still greater boldness, energy, and competition. In our conversations, everyone has expressed it is their reflections on values and focus on the core which inspires them for a year ahead which will no doubt be even more fast paced than the last.

Bessie spoke to us about a clear business vision, Hans about re-engaging with the “emotional narrative” of the Brand. And for Emily her strength and inspiration as a leader comes from Family, Professional Partnerships, and Wayne – who is the seventeenth child she has hosted in their “Spare Room” (read more below).

Thank you to all our clients, candidates and colleagues; and particularly Bessie Lee, Emily Chang and Hans Lopez Vito for their insight and contributions.

By Helen Duffy, CEO APAC at Grace Blue

Apple debuts 2022 Chinese New Year film (clear some time on your schedule) | Advertising | Campaign Asia
The ride of the tiger: Feast your eyes on BMW’s delightfully goofy new-year ad | Advertising | Campaign Asia
Emily Chang – Social Legacy Home | The Spare Room (social-legacy.com)