Chinese New Year : Celebrating the Traditional & the Modern in the Year of the Dog

Chinese New Year Instore theater

Chinese New Year Instore theater

Greetings from Shanghai where the pace of life is slowly returning to normal after the Chinese New Year festivities, which kicked off on February 16th.

I’ve long enjoyed CNY celebrations in cities around the world. However, the experience of my first Spring Festival in Shanghai is one I will not soon forget.

The 15-day festival is the most important holiday on China’s cultural and retail calendars. For reference, it's interesting to know that Chinese families spent close to $100B on CNY shopping and dining in 2014– almost double what was spent during American Thanksgiving.


Among other things, I observed the festival to be a study in contrasts. On the one hand, there is a strong cultural imperative to return home for a traditional celebration with family members. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that homeward-bound Chinese travelers make almost 3 billion trips annually during the New Year celebration, creating the world’s largest human migration.

However, the idea of duonian, or “escaping” from the Spring Festival is also gaining popularity throughout China. Growing numbers of urban professionals enjoy escaping the mainland for international vacations, while migrant workers are increasingly forgoing trips home to skip the financial burden of the gifts expected to accompany their arrival.

PepsiCo's Quaker Chinese New Year displays

PepsiCo's Quaker Chinese New Year displays

Travel home or escape? Cook a traditional meal or dine out? Shop at customary markets or online?       Give time-honored gifts or foreign goods? Or even an English couplet?

The interplay between 4,000 years of tradition and a decidedly modern lifestyle was at play throughout CNY preparations and celebrations this year.

At many points during the festival, I encountered people expressing aspects of this duality – a deep yearning to honor tradition mixed with a desire to infuse their holiday celebrations with contemporary goods and experiences.


I also observed several companies actively helping Chinese consumers reconcile this cultural tension. They represent great examples of how a brand can deepen their relationship with consumers during moments that matter, by answering unmet needs and desires with delightful solutions.


Image :  Caixin Global

I’d be remiss not to start with WeChat’s reinvention of the hongbao, or cash-filled red envelope customarily exchanged during CNY celebrations. In 2014, the company launched a Red Envelope App, which allowed users to digitally participate in the customary gifting. 

WeChat drew on the traditional iconography of the red packet, so the app felt familiar and rooted in tradition. However, a novel innovation allowed gifters to send a lump sum to a group to be dispersed in random amounts, adding a new element of surprise and luck.

By all accounts the idea was a cultural hit, and exchanging money via the Red Envelope app has become a modern tradition (and a clever way to drive WeChat trial and use). In 2017, approximately 46.6 billion red envelopes were exchanged – an incredible 33 envelopes for every person in China. Aptly, The China Post declared that, “even grandma is ditching hongbao for WeChat’s digital red envelopes.” 

Chinese New Year preparations customarily include family shopping trips to local markets to buy fabric for new clothing, décor items, gifts, candies, and the ingredients for holiday meals.

Today, consumer goods are abundant throughout the year, families live further apart, and shopping trips are rapidly shifting to hypermarkets and online. Yet, many still yearn for the time-honored market experience.

Last year, the eCommerce website Taobao acknowledged this tension with a beautiful redesign of their user interface for the CNY holiday. The seasonal overlay drew inspiration from a famous, Song-dynasty era painting of a traditional Chinese market, Along the River During the Qingming Festival

Image :  Dragon Social  

Image: Dragon Social 

Taobao created an animated, interactive interpretation of the art that became their homepage during the festival. Users could shop the animation, either by clicking parts of the picture corresponding to what they wanted to purchase or by using a search feature. 

This creative website redesign was an insightful solution to help shoppers reconcile a longing for the traditional market trip with the ease and convenience of accomplishing their holiday shopping online. 

During the festival, there is no shortage of nostalgic advertising that explores the increasing difficulty of pausing one’s busy life to return home. 
(See here, here, and here, but have your tissues ready). 

Image:   Nokia China

This year, Nokia did something less expected with their holiday advertising, which launched the Nokia 6 just ahead of the CNY. The campaign features a dutiful son who is a busy actor, unable to return home for the New Year. 

His mother, unsatisfied with a video call, surprises him on the set of his film with a home-cooked meal, and the pair enjoy a warm dinner together.

I love the way that Nokia suggests an unexpected solution to a common consumer dilemma, by reimagining the idea of the “return home” and opening up new paths to family togetherness.


Pepsi’s “Bring Happiness Home” campaign is a fourth and final example of the insightful updating of CNY tradition. Each year, the brand partners with award-winning talent to produce a short film that celebrates CNY and explores the idea of a “happy family.” 

This year’s production, Thunderbolt Parents, is a musical comedy that tells the story of two generations of love and dreams. It sagely reminds “young people” across generations that we will find our parents much cooler (and more complicated) than we imagine if we only make an effort to understand them.

Image : Pepsi, 2018

Image: Pepsi, 2018

Over the past 7 years, Pepsi’s launch of a short film has become a CNY tradition in its own right, signaling to consumers that the Spring Festival is near. 

This year’s project has already garnered over 600 million views, along with a noteworthy amount of social media buzz.

I appreciate the way that Pepsi, true to its fun-loving spirit, uses a star-studded cast and karaoke-worthy tunes to refresh the idea of the traditional reunion dinner. Pepsi joyfully reminds consumers that, with a little heart, celebrating the New Year with family can be a lively, modern affair. 


These examples are four sparks that illuminate how an insightful blend of the customary and the contemporary can result in a delightful updating of tradition. 

Rapid technological innovation and increasing prosperity are contributing to moments of cultural change in cities around the globe. This is certainly true in China during the Spring Festival and at other times throughout the year as well. 

I believe brands, especially multinationals, are at their best when they can help consumers forge new ways forward while also helping them retain what is important from the past. 

The most successful will approach this opportunity with the perfect blend of fresh thinking and humility – a mandate that will be at the core of my work in the year ahead.

Happy Year of the Dog to all. Xin nian da ji! (Have a prosperous New Year.)

The Rebirth of Consumer Curation

Well over a decade ago, savvy retailers started to offer edited assortments to shoppers dealing with a growing number of options. Remember Target’s collaboration with Issac Mizrahi or the growth of retail chain Anthropologie? Analysts dubbed this phenomenon ‘curated consumption,’ and it became a standard retail offering.

To “curate” means to "pull together, sift through, and select for presentation." There is a functional aspect to curation, as it requires the working through a volume of choices. It also requires the creative act of making selections that others see as unique or inspired.

In today's tech-enabled culture, I’ve noticed this editing process happening with a new scope and speed. A growing variety of things are being curated with increasingly sophisticated tools  – a dynamic I’ll call Curation 2.0.

The Dawn of Curation 2.0

Whether we are considering where to work, live, or vacation; how to eat, dress, or style a home; or what to listen to, watch, or read – the options available at our fingertips continue to grow. In this cultural landscape, the more technology offers us, the more we need new tools to curate the vast landscape of what is available.

This struck me while perusing a group of the most upvoted product ideas on the Product Hunt Website. (The site itself being, ironically, a curated selection of startup ideas.)

Entrepreneurs clearly recognize a cultural need for help dealing with option overload. Across the new product ideas, the offer of an edited selection of options was a recurrent theme.

I found products to curate everything under the sun: job postings from around the world, minimalist design objects, local spots for travelers, coffee shops for working, art, or weekend plans.

Many of these start-ups are business models yet to be proven, but they complement a litany of more established applications with curation elements like Netflix, Flipboard, and Apple Music. (And of course Pinterest, perhaps the grandfather of curation apps.)

Curation on the Retail Landscape

Curation 2.0 means you can find a great local dive or unique objet d’art, but it is also playing out on larger scale. Where there are masses of consumers, there are companies to help them navigate through a dizzying number of retail categories by choosing only from an edited assortment.

One only need begin with StitchFix for clothes, then move on to BlueApron for groceries, 99 chairs for furnishings, and Canopy for most everything else.

The fashion category is one particularly interesting example of how an industry can be revolutionized by Curation 2.0.

As the pace and scope of fashion has eclipsed the abilities of the average shopper, many have turned to editors for help.

Subscription services like Trunk Club (and the already-mentioned Stitch Fix) and curation websites like AHA and have become an integral part of the way many consumers shop for and buy clothing.

Some of these applications use tech-powered curation. For example, Stitch Fix employs over 50 data scientists to create selections tailored to individual customer tastes. Others, like AHA, rely on human tastemakers to identify inspired options.

Whether guided by an algorithm or a living, breathing person, curated fashion doesn't seem to be a passing fad. One industry expert predicts that subscription services will become a full-fledged fashion retail channel in the coming years.

What’s Next?

As shoppers enjoy curated shopping experiences in a few pioneering categories, their decision-making muscles will atrophy. It is not a stretch to imagine they will desire – even expect – curated help across all their shopping experiences.

Retailers and brands sold at retail should ask themselves how they can leverage technology to become trusted editors. To start, consider a quick-fire brainstorm:

Q1: What do we sell that my consumers would like to consume in an edited assortment?

Q2: What type of curation do my consumers want? (Consider: Customized Combinations? Inspired suggestions from a tastemaker? Community-generated recommendations?)

Q3: Should my curated selections be generated by an algorithm? A human? Both?

What’s Even Further Afield?

Looking down the road, I predict a need for ‘meta-curators.’

As consumers come to rely on curated collections across many categories, the number of requisite websites and apps will once again explode. As a consumer, I would love to use many of the tools I’ve called out above – but who has the time?

The inevitable next step will be to pare down to a smaller number of broad curation tools that work across traditional categories.

Will the next wave of Silicon Valley darlings be applications that crack the meta-curation code?

Until then, good luck and happy editing!

Welcome 2017: Looking Forward & Back

It’s been unusually cold in Dallas and a great time to be introspective. Below I share a pair of insights I have percolating about the year ahead. Cheers to seeing these and other themes unfold in 2017.

 #1: Retail Brands Will Think So Consumers Don’t Have To

 In 2016:  I wrote about how Tesco’s IFTTT channel automates grocery shopping, paving the way for the ‘predictive grocery basket’ of the future.

In The Year Ahead:

To identify emerging trends, follow the money. AI applications are at a tipping point this year, with AI-generated retail revenue expected to skyrocket from $643.7 million in 2016 to $36.8 billion by 2025 according to Tractica.

Innovative retailers are already embracing their new AI-driven world. 2016 saw The North Face’s ‘expert shopper’ Lowe’s Pinterest-scraping interior decorator, and a Starbucks app that offers customized promotions by knowing when and where someone drives.

This march to AI-powered retail will fundamentally shift the role of brands and retailers in consumers’ lives from responsive to predictive.

Today, a brand (retail or otherwise) is a helper that makes it possible to fulfill my needs and wants. The best brands use data to offer curated selections or to delight with new, personalized suggestions.

As increasingly sophisticated bots and apps are launched in the year ahead, the role of retailer/brand will morph into that of a butler, which can proactively anticipate what I need and deliver. The most innovative will find ways to identify and fulfill needs and wants I didn’t even know I had yet.

This will shift the retail paradigm in diverse categories–from grocery to fashion, electronics and anything in between. Just ask Tesco’s grocery shoppers, whose carts are filled with items they are going to want–tomorrow.

There will be benefits for consumers, who will be able to shop more efficiently while offloading repetitive decisions. The upside for retailers and brands will be the ability to add true value to consumers while also driving frequency and desired purchase behaviors.

So, let’s look forward to a not-so-distant future in which we will all sit back while the bots do our shopping.

#2: Communities Will Find New Ways to Flourish

 In 2016:  Last year’s travels revealed that, even in our tech-driven culture, person-to-person communities are thriving around the globe. This is reflected in South Africa’s spazas, Brazil’s favelas, Shenzhen’s maker culture, and the social nature of global shopping days.

In The Year Ahead:

I will look for the ways in which the fundamental human need to connect and collaborate sparks new platforms and innovations.

Some suggest it will be the ‘year of the group chat,’ as people leave the increasingly corporate and drama-wrought spheres of Facebook and Twitter for smaller circles of virtual connections.

Because workers are people too, we will see the continued growth of enterprise-based communities like Slack. (Incredibly, the average user already spends 10 hours per day in app). While 2016 saw the office party go virtual, I wonder what other communal rituals might find online expressions in the year ahead?

The e-commerce sphere will continue to birth new commerce-based communities, like Amazon’s small-seller platforms, Handmade and Launchpad, and ShopClues, an Indian tech unicorn succeeding with a model that connects small-time sellers to rural communities.

And, I expect to see passion communities move from desktop to mobile, following so many other facets of daily life. This is something developer Amino Apps is banking on and investors are betting on their success.

Last year, seeing firsthand Detroit’s transformation from post-war auto hub to thriving tech town inspired me to think about how the digital world creates opportunities to reinvent community.

As we turn the page to 2017, retailers and brands – both established and emerging – will do well to think about how they can reimagine and facilitate communities for consumers craving authentic connections.

Best wishes for a healthy and happy new year to all. I’m off to get Alexa started on my to-do list…