Co-branding strategies in China for foreign brands

Tips for co-branding in China as a foreign brand

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Co-branding strategies have been widely used and seem to work particularly well in the Chinese market. Over the past few years, many brands have successfully drawn traffic, boosted their sales and even rejuvenated their brand image in China through collaborating with other brands. Collaborations can come from completely different industries, such as the cooperation between Uniqlo and Kaws. The search volume for both brands on Baidu Index increased drastically right after the official launch of the collaboration. However, the same co-branding strategies did not win as much attention in Japan and Korea as it did in China.

This kind of phenomenon begs the question: How do co-branding strategies work in China, and why do they work so well? This article will walk you through two successful co-branding cases and another failed co-branding case in the Chinese market in hope of providing some insights into how to conduct successful co-branding campaigns in China.

Dove x The Forbidden City Museum (故宫博物院) A play on words that shows a deep understanding of Chinese culture

The Forbidden City Museum has made the transition from a historical site to a huge IP (Intellectual property) in the past few years and attracted tons of local and foreign collaborations. During the 2020 Spring Festival, Dove partnered with the Forbidden City Museum by conducting a series of co-branding campaigns in China revolving around the traditional Chinese concept of “blessing” (福). The Chinese character “福”is pronounced as “Fu,” which is the same as the second character of Dove’s Chinese brand name “德芙.” Interestingly, “德芙” is pronounced the same as “得福” in Chinese, meaning “get blessings.”

Dove x The Forbidden City Museum co-branding campaign in China

Source: Sina Weibo, Dove x The Forbidden City Museum

In general, Chinese people attach a lot of importance to traditional notions such as luck and blessings, especially during traditional Chinese holidays, which is evident everywhere, like the massive use of the color red. Dove smartly took advantage of what its Chinese brand name could possibly deliver in a Chinese festival and further enhanced its connection with Chinese culture through its co-branding strategy with the Forbidden City Museum. Apart from Dove, the Forbidden City Museum has also conducted co-branding campaigns in China with other brands across different kinds of fields, such as BIOHYALUX(润百颜)and  Swarovski (施华洛世奇).

A lesson on Chinese culture

What we can learn from this co-branding collaboration is that traditional Chinese culture is back in fashion. And even brands like Dove that have foreign DNA can partner up with traditional Chinese brands to show their understanding of the culture, and capture the appreciation of young Chinese consumers.

Pepsi x People’s Daily (人民日报) a meaningful, colorful, and engaging collaboration

On June 5th, 2020, Pepsi and People’s Daily announced the launch of four brand-new product packaging design to commemorate the doctors and nurses, volunteers, and other frontline works during the coronavirus pandemic in China. The new Pepsi packaging adopted People’s Daily’s signature “newspaper color.”

Apart from Pepsi’s new packaging design, Pepsi and People’s Daily also launched a mini program on WeChat where users can take a personality quiz based on their passions.  Although these two brands that come from two completely different industries and hardly match the brand propositions of one another, this partnership worked surprisingly well and added positive connotations like humanism to both brands by resorting to recent events.

Pepsi x People’s Daily co-branding campaign in China

Source: Sina Weibo, Pepsi x People’s Daily

Using the brands’ power to share an agreeable message

Though this Chinese co-branding campaign was between two brands, they added a third element of appreciation to the COVID-19 response teams.  It’s hard to go wrong with an uplifting message of gratitude which the brands share with the consumers.

Durex (杜蕾斯) x  Hey Tea (喜茶) finding what works in Chinese culture

Although the list of successful cases of co-branding partnerships in China could go on and on, co-branding strategies do not necessarily lead to success all the time even for collaborations between giant companies. On April 2019, Durex partnered with Hey Tea and organized a marketing campaign themed “for one night” on Chinese social media platform Weibo. Although Durex was often applauded for its creative copywriting on Weibo, this co-branding campaign with Hey Tea was not as successful. Due to the use of vulgar languages like “not a single drop would be left tonight,” Durex was harshly criticized on Chinese social media.

Hey Tea was quick to delete the posts and post an apology, showing rapid crisis management, and promises to be more careful in the future. However, The National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications said that Durex’s latest ads could “ruin the Chinese“, meaning that future suggestive advertising will be treading on even thinner ice.

daxue consulting translation, Hey Tea's apology after the suggestive marketing campaign with Durex

Image source: Nanfang Daily’s WeChat page, daxue consulting translation, Hey Tea’s apology after the suggestive marketing campaign with Durex

Although young people in China are generally perceived as more open-minded than older generations, Asian cultures generally still tend to be implicit than explicit. Through our research on Chinese humor in marketing, we found that subtle innuendos are not only more acceptable, but quite often embraced by condom brands. Therefore, when delivering messages, brands should communicate in terms that are culturally accepted instead of taking the risks of facing backlash.

How to choose a co-branding partner in China

The successful examples above have showcased the possibility of breaking the dimensional wall  and benefits for both brands through co-branding partnerships. However, failures of co-branding partnerships in China remind us that it is still very important for brands to remain cautious when choosing a co-branding partner in China. Factors brands should take into considerations include:

1) Do I share target market with the partner?

2) What would the partner bring to my brand image?

3) What are the risks of partnering with them?

Considerations to craft a co-branded marketing message in the Chinese market

One advantage of co-branding is it gives brands a chance to leverage elements that are not in their own brand image. For example, currently as traditional Chinese culture is becoming cool and national pride is high, foreign brands which lack a Chinese image can still partner with Chinese brands.  At the same time, new brands can partner with old brands to create a nostalgia marketing campaign.

These are four considerations when crafting a co-branded marketing campaign in China

  • What elements do I share with the partner brand?
  • What does the other brand have that my brand lacks?
  • What elements does my brand have that the other brand lacks?
  • How can we make our message uplifting, empowering or agreeable to consumers?

It is worth testing co-branded marketing messages in consumer focus groups to make sure there is no slip-up or misunderstanding in the language. When done successfully, co-branding can reap invaluable benefits for a brand.

Co-author: Isabella Li


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