Fresh from a period of introspection, Balenciaga is ready to woo Chinese consumers with a compassionate campaign for 520 Day on May 20. The Kering-owned luxury brand is proving to be an innovative player in the Chinese festival, also known as Cyber Valentine’s Day, which has been gaining momentum in recent years.
During the pandemic lockdowns of 2022, the house delighted couch-bound fans with its 5:20 Video Game Hall, branded memes and profile photos.
It’s continuing its commitment to 520 Day this year with a “I Love” pattern, a nature-inspired ad campaign shot by Andrea Artemisio, and a new mini-game on its official WeChat account.
“520” originated from an internet slang term of endearment, as the pronunciation of the numbers sounds like “I love you” in Mandarin. In China’s unique cyber-culture, the term morphed into an online shop-fest — one of four love-themed marketing bonanzas that occur throughout the year, alongside Valentine’s Day, White Valentine’s Day and the Qixi Festival.
The event has become an emotion-charged opportunity for luxury brands to target digitally native Gen Z. Plus, it’s a useful warm-up event and testing ground for JD.com’s mega 618 shopping festival in June. Its, albeit tenuous, link to Chinese culture is also touted as a guochao-approved localization tactic, differentiating the festival from Western Valentine’s Day on February 14.
Balenciaga’s 520 campaign launched on April 25, almost a month ahead of the May celebration. Splashed across a range of 520-exclusive T-shirts, hoodies, pierced caps and socks, Balenciaga has created a graphic consisting of the letter ‘I’ and a red heart shape, blurred as if swinging in vertical motion.
Denoting “I Love,” the design is deliberately vague to enable consumers to participate in the design process. A garment marker is included with each purchase so consumers can personalize their garment with the object/s of their affection. The concept plays to Gen Z’s penchant for self-expression and Balenciaga’s edgy, playful style. Cue a storm of user-generated social media content as fans share their personally meaningful luxury creations.
The 520 series also introduces new styles of accessories, including Triple S Mule sneakers in limited-edition colorways; extra-small Le Cagole and Bistro bags with black or fluorescent-pink bows; and silver and gold padlock necklaces.
Balenciaga’s 520 products exude the effortlessly cool street vibe for which the luxury brand is loved in China, while also reflecting the house’s current shift to a more authentic aesthetic — apparent in the campaign shot by Italian photographer Andrea Artemisio.
Known for his melding of minimalism and the hyperreal, Artemisio’s images feature models relaxing in a natural environment, wearing products from the series along with new outerwear concepts. Grassy knolls and tree branches create a simple scene. Birdsong trills in the video background.
It’s a bucolic departure from buzzy marketing tactics of the past. Balenciaga is reaching out with a broader meaning of love that embraces inclusivity and upholds the house’s vision and commitment to the future of our world.
Gaming is increasingly being used by fashion brands to add a fun and immersive element to the experience of online shopping. Balenciaga flirted with this space for 520 Day last year, creating arcade-style mini-games that resonated with Chinese millennials who grew up playing Super Mario, helping expand the brand’s online communities.
This year’s game, playable on Balenciaga’s official WeChat account, allows users to choose a farmer avatar — dressed in products from the 520 series, of course — who is tasked with growing virtual crops using regenerative agricultural techniques. Each step’s importance to the ecosystem is explained along the way and users are incentivized with unique stickers and cards to collect.
The choice of a farming game goes beyond appealing to Chinese youth’s concerns about protecting the planet. Balenciaga itself has committed to becoming environmentally sustainable in line with parent company Kering’s Standards for Raw Materials and Manufacturing Processes by 2025. The game helps draw awareness to projects supported by the Regenerative Fund for Nature, set up by Kering and Conservation International in 2021, with the aim of transforming one million hectares of crop fields and rangelands into regenerative agricultural spaces.
The annual 520 Day can be a lucrative marketing opportunity for luxury brands, but they must approach their campaigns with creativity and authenticity to win over young Chinese consumers — in love, or otherwise — and combat shopping festival fatigue. The concept of love for many extends beyond traditional relationships to embrace personal development, self-care and societal change.
By keeping ‘I Love ___’ open-ended, Balenciaga appeals to consumers’ desire for free expression and younger generations’ preference for advocacy. Linking the campaign to love for the planet aligns the brand’s values with those of its target market and, hopefully, will drive meaningful change.
At Paris Fashion Week in March this year, Balenciaga’s Creative Director Demna announced that he is toning down the showmanship of fashion and returning to the art of creating clothes. This approach is apparent in the maison’s Winter 23 collection, and indeed the current China-exclusive 520 series. Let’s see if China falls in love with this new direction.