What’s Love Got to Do With it? The Chinese Holidays Brands Really Need to Know About!

On May 20, Chinese citizens celebrated the internet-spawned holiday “520” (called such because the numerals said aloud sound like “I love you (我爱你)” in Chinese). But for luxury brands targeting the China market, 520 is just one in a long list of days celebrating love — or the lack of it — that now includes the official Chinese Valentine’s Day (Qixi), Singles’ Day on 11/11, and American Valentine’s Day on February 14.

In China, what began as innocent gestures of love — much in the way Singles’ Day was at first celebrated by college students gifting Pocky candy to their fellow single friends — has now been transformed into a massive shopping festival. Yet the competition is stronger than ever before for foreign brands participating in these holiday sale events. Last year’s Singles’ Day, for instance, saw Alibaba report sales of over $30.8 billion (RMB 2,135 billion) in 24 hours, a hefty jump up from 2017’s $25.3 billion (RMB1, 682 billion) record.

So how can smaller brands compete? To be honest, they can’t — at least according to last month’s London breakfast briefing by Chinese Digital Marketing Agency Tong Digital. “If shopping is a national sport in China, then Singles’ Day is the Olympics,” says Tong’s co-founder Adam Knight to Jing Daily. “Thousands of brands lined up to battle in a hotly-anticipated and high stakes competition that begins with the kind of pageantry-filled gala worthy of any sporting opening ceremony. But as with any elite sporting event, brands need to know where they stand amongst the competition. You shouldn’t be jumping head first into the big leagues.”

Knight warns brands that for every November headline they read about companies smashing their Singles’ Day expectations, there are many more untold stories about the pain and financial loss that the vast majority of brands participating in the festival experience. Is your brand ready for the Olympics? If not, be warned.

Beyond Singles’ Day, Qixi, and 520, China offers brands a whole host of unique festivals with the potential to be capitalized. One example of these is Children’s Day, which was on June 1. Children’s Day has been celebrated in China since 1949, but lately it’s become increasingly shopping-focused, boasting over $1.5 billion in sales during last year’s holiday. Of the key products from the 2018 celebration, luxury children’s wear and shoes were one of the bigger hits with young parents wanting to show off their fantastic-looking progeny.

The 99 Wine Festival, which falls on September 9, could become a major boon for companies specializing in hospitality, drinks labels, hotel brands, and restaurants. Like 520, the wine festival was born from a pronunciation coincidence, when, in 2016, Alibaba’s CEO Jack Ma designated the dates for a wine and spirits festival because the number “9” has the same pronunciation as wine in Mandarin. During the 9-day promotion, deals on the hard stuff were everywhere, including online retailer Tmall’s great deals on wine, Chinese Baijiu, and other spirits.

But believe it or not, there are also many traditional Chinese celebrations, such as the Mid-Autumn Festival on September 13 and Golden Week from October 1 – 7, that still offer brands opportunities to steal a piece of the China market by demonstrating an authentic understanding of the country’s cultural history. The Mid-Autumn Festival is a key time to promote small gift items, including the holiday’s traditional mooncake treats. With the help of local influencers, promoting sales during the week can be relatively low cost, but the rewards can be exceptionally high. Because of this, Golden Week is travel industry gold and is a great opportunity for brands to run a comprehensive campaign that includes promotional codes or lucky draw campaigns as a way to interact with Chinese customers.

“Following some very real brand fatigue, many companies are now having to reconsider their promotional strategies in China, Knight adds. “Increasingly, we find ourselves advising brands to look beyond Singles’ Day at many of the other less headline-grabbing and more niche shopping festivals. This is often where they see the best results.”

Three Key Takeaways from Tong Digital:

  1. It’s easy for brands to get lost in the sheer volume of promotions during major celebrations.
  2. Focus on a handful of relevant and accessible events, as it’s better to invest intelligently in fewer festivals.
  3. Plan well in advance — at least three to six months — with a comprehensive and localized strategy.

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