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Should marketers jump on board the year of the rat?

To rat, or not to rat. It is a challenge many non-Chinese brands have struggled with when planning their Lunar New Year designs and marketing campaigns. Rats may be a traditional zodiac symbol of wealth and surplus, but that is not necessarily helpful in situations in which there is seasonally based exposure to Western consumers as well as Chinese audiences.      

In a bid to side-line the ‘rat’ problem, many brands are opting to use mice images that definitely have appeal in China, particularly among younger demographics brought up on American media. We conducted a survey on Zhihu to establish an idea of the preference of rat vs. mouse, and of more than 200 responses over 80% opted for the mouse.

Major brands have not been slow to capitalize on the mouse theme. Mickey, Minnie and Jerry Mouse provide great visual creative options and not a little heritage. Gucci, Miu Miu, Maybelline, SKII, Kate Spade, Reebok and Etro have adopted one or the other.

But rat iconography has not been abandoned altogether. One much talked about example is Chloe, whose white bags and t-shirts featuring unique watercolour style designs have been widely praised as perfect spring wear, as well as an elegant way to welcome in the New Year. Burberry too has turned a rat design into a stylised logo that can be worn well past spring festival.

In the last few years, Longchamps and Michael Kors have developed a reputation for taking a less is more approach to CNY branding. This time around Michael Kors has avoided animal imagery altogether. Its CNY inspired range this year includes a selection of reds, pastel pinks and greys giving a subtle nod to the CNY theme that will not compromise the wearer once the 2020 celebrations are over.

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Longchamps has produced what is perhaps the biggest New Year commercial coup by once again collaborating with super KOL Mr Bags, with a design range featuring images of tell-tale rodent bite marks, and cartoon cheese images on, or inside bags. The distinctive designs have proved to be a massively popular theme.

With the current demand in China for almost anything to do with nostalgia for the past, MAC has partnered with The Palace Museum for a different take on CNY. While the use of Chinese patterns is not new in itself, this collaboration ensures designs tailored to fit Chinese consumers’ desired aesthetics, while also giving the products an added layer of storytelling and authenticity.

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The prize for the most creatively flamboyant while being best-hidden design should perhaps go to luxury watch manufacturer Paneria whose Luminor limited edition has a highly decorative rat design case back that will remain largely unknown to all but the wearer. Something that cannot be said of timepiece rival producers such as Blanpain, Harry Winston and Chopard that have overt rat watch face designs that will inevitably date fairly quickly.   

For Western marketers, the challenge is often not a question of product design produced for CNY, but the promotional creative. Some of the most popular Chinese social media content of the season focuses on CNY marketing failures, such as Burberry’s 2019 ‘Munster’ family campaign, and lists showcasing faux-pas ranging from off-brand imagery to inappropriate wording.

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But though there have been mistakes this year, mostly it has been a turning point for Western brands. The abundance of pop culture references available has helped, plus more brands are listening to Chinese consumer demands for products coupled with storytelling and creativity. But also there are more products that can be enjoyed outside of the festival period without being out of date, whether based on a rat or a mouse.  

Domenica Di Lieto is the chief executive officer of Emerging Communications.

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