A variety of brands are deploying the tile-matching game mahjong, developed in the 19th century, as a tool to better engage Chinese consumers – businesses as diverse as Hermès and McDonald’s have released branded mahjong sets to varying degrees of success.
At home the game is finding favor among younger generations, while a pivotal scene from 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, the highest growing rom-com of the 2010s, according to Huffington Post, raised mahjong’s profile internationally.
“Most high-end luxury brands deeply understand the importance of mahjong as a Chinese pastime. One company to highlight is Piaget – it included a mahjong set in its VIC Chinese new year gift in 2022,” Laura Pan, professor of International Business at Milan’s SDA Bocconi School of Management, tells Jing Daily.
Tapping local know-how
Leather maker Berluti, founded in 1895, partnered in 2020 with Benwu Studio, a New York-based multi-disciplinary design outfit launched in 2012 by Chinese designers Wang Hongchao and Peng You, to create a luxurious mahjong set encased in a clutch made from rich Venezia leather. The tiles featuring engraved brush-and-ink-style numbers are made from refined wood, the hue of which complements the leather. Whether used for entertainment or as interior décor, the set is a sophisticated addition to the home.
The creative duo has created visual feasts for international maisons and high-end mall window displays and installations for the likes of Hermès, Vacheron Constantin, SKP, and Lane Crawford.
A mahjong set from Cartier adorned with pearls and jade costs $65,000 (450,000 RMB), while one by Louis Vuitton’s is priced at $62,000 (430,000 RMB). Prada and Bulgari’s sets are comparatively budget-friendly at around $4,300 (30,000 RMB).
“Luxury brand mahjong sets are carefully created to respect the cultural significance of each tile’s characters and symbols. The only injection of creativity is in the type of materials used. For instance, Louis Vuitton housed its mahjong set in its iconic LV trunk, conveying the essence of its brand DNA,” says Pan.
Not all luxury mahjong sets have resonated well with Chinese consumers, quite literally in the case of Hermès’ version, released in 2020, made from the highest quality sandalwood. It didn’t make the loud click-clack sounds traditional tiles make when shuffled, which irked some players given the set’s US$41,000 (281,165 RMB) price tag.
The release generated $415,000 (2.9 million RMB) in media impact value (MIV) as of March 10, according to data-tracking platform Launchmetrics.
Given prominent luxury brands have already given mahjong their treatment, high-end names should creatively engage with the game to stand out from the crowd, while avoiding cultural appropriation pitfalls that could prompt a backlash. In 2021, three American women were accused of whitewashing mahjong for not paying homage to Chinese origins but referecing it as a ‘midcentury modern design.’
Fashion retailer Joyce took another approach. It partnered with Hong Kong lifestyle brand Editecture to create a limited edition mahjong set with sustainability at its heart. The biodegradable set, released in September 2021 as a series of 12 units, is handcrafted from black walnut wood and materials upcycled from the archival collections of independent designers like Dries van Noten, Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Thom Browne, and Yohji Yamamoto.
The set is a meaningful piece that connects with many of the fashion industry’ most prominent figures.
One for the collection
American artist Daniel Arsham, who has collaborated with Dior, Porsche, and Xiaomi, partnered with hit iQiyi streetwear-oriented show Fourtry to co-create a series of art installations at Fourtry Space, the show’s experiential retail store in Chengdu, which included a limited edition Eroded Mahjong set.
The partnership attracted positive media coverage in China. The China Daily praised the collaboration with an international artist of Arsham’s caliber, which “not only brought the world’s most pioneering and cutting-edge visual art to Fourtry 2, but also reflected the commercial value of [Fourtry’s] own brand.”
The creative tie-up generated $53,200 (368,000 RMB) in MIV, according to Launchmetrics.
The rising popularity of Chengdu and Chongqing, where the national pastime is especially popular, as fashion and food meccas for younger consumers has invigorated mahjong culture across the country among a new demographic.
Mass consumer businesses are leading the way creatively reinventing the mahjong set.
For instance, in January this year, fast food chain McDonald’s released a mahjong set featuring images of its french fries, and domestic electric car manufacturer Xpeng launched a metal mahjong set embossed with its logo in 2022.
Meanwhile, condom brand Durex launched a mahjong set for this year’s lunar new year holiday.
Dubbed Dudu Mahjong, the set sports the brand’s signature blue and white. However, instead of featuring traditional mahjong symbols, Durex engaged in some wordplay.
The brand replaced the character for the set’s east 东, or dong, tile with 杜, or du, the first character of Durex’s Chinese name.
The accompanying ad campaign riffed on the wordplay with the slogan: “Du you love me? Yes, I du!”
The set’s release instantly created online social buzz in China. Durex dared to take a fresh approach to the traditional pastime combining it with a youthful spirit while respecting the game’s cultural status. It’s a strategy other brands would be well advised to follow.