Is China losing its appetite for the hustle and energy of its New Years celebrations?  Or is the holiday still an opportunity to connect with consumers?  Nicolas Peden, cultural-insight explorer at Oracle Added Value, delves into Shanghai to find out.

Nothing like a tall cup of coffee to reinvigorate.

I wouldn’t dream of starting my day without two large cups ‘o’ joe (forgive this hopeless New Yorker).

It’s what kept me chugging along the last couple days when trekking through hazy Shanghai to unearth the city’s “Chinese New Year Spirit.”

[Full disclosure: Fine roasted java has been a common thread through my life, and will be through this article.]

Unfortunately, I have to report that Shanghai is losing much of its Chinese New Year (CNY) Spirit.

Just days away from this most important of traditional holidays, the streets are no more animated than usual.  As any true local knows – once Sunday rolls around, there will be no sleeping through the incessant, clamorous fireworks.  Yet, in the week before the big day, it’s obvious that Shanghai’s enthusiasm for this festive season is waning year-on-year.

Granted the Shanghainese CNY celebration has always paled in comparison to Guangzhou in the south and Harbin in the north.  But, in recent years, the city’s pre-CNY sea of red and gold has been replaced by half-hearted decorations in front of the occasional home, storefront, and bank.  With tangible lack of conviction, these excuses for decorations go up out of habit, or because of some half-baked commercial obligation to be seen to be doing something.


So what’s at the cause?

Here are the suspects:

Chun Yun.  It’s the world’s biggest migration period, when most of China’s population will be in transit to visit family.  Since most folks living in Shanghai are not actually locals, the streets will clear out when everyone heads home to spend the Spring Festival back in their jiaxiang (their home town).  Nevertheless, this is not a new phenomenon, and has not constrained pre-CNY enthusiasm in the past.

Nationwide Shutdown.  China virtually shuts down. Stores are gated, restaurants closed, and shopping centers deserted. Besides spending time with the family, there’s little else to do.  But it’s always been that way for the seven day period beginning on New Year’s Day (Chuyi ).  So, can’t be that.

Family Obligations. Young couples are, these days, expected to pay their respects to both sides of the family (no matter where they are in China).  So, quality family time is sacrificed for even longer periods on the road or on a train (and, for the lucky ones, at airports and in the air).  But that still doesn’t account for the lusterless Pre-CNY period.

Losing it.  Quite simply, the root cause is that Shanghai’s younger generations are losing touch with traditions. Chinese New Year has failed to adapt, failed to modernize.  It’s looked the same for decades – the same red lanterns, the same zodiac signs, the same decals, the same fonts, and the same tassels.  As we like to say in Cultural Insight: it’s all terribly residual!

Subsequently, Chinese New Year is at risk of becoming irrelevant to the younger generations, who have grown indifferent to the iconography.

Moreover, few brands have ventured beyond this formula. The general apathy is neatly characterized by what we like to call the “Just slap a dragon on it” approach.

Nevertheless, there’s a glimmer of hope!

And it brings us back to coffee….

…My fountain of youth, my magic elixir, my shoulder to lean on… [Ed’s note: Nick, love the enthusiasm, but do get a grip]

…Coffee.  And not just any coffee.

I’m talking Starbucks.

Starbucks is developing a new expression of Chinese New Year.  One that navigates through the doldrums of antiquated traditions by leveraging the brand’s trendy, modern cache to create a fun reinterpretation of the holiday.

Starbucks has been successful on two fronts.

First of all, Starbucks leverages the common CNY signifiers like zodiac signs, family, abundance of Red, and lanterns.  BUT, Starbucks has cleverly reappropriated the CNY visual language in a uniquely Starbucks way (i.e. trendy, modern).  Rather than just using lanterns, they turned coffee cups into lanterns.  Rather than showing intensive family gatherings, they show young couples coming together over coffee.

Secondly, they’ve created excitement for exotic, new products to be released in the run-up to the holidays.  Rather than repackaging the same product for CNY, Starbucks has released limited-run products, and created a viral buzz through their homepage and Weibo (microblog).

And needless to say, young Chinese consumers are far more likely to try new flavors like Peach Blossom Tea Latte, or Valencia Macchiato than this New Yorker…

Through décor and product offering, Starbucks has created a new, and more forward thinking Chinese New Year context.  One that young consumers are gravitating to.

A tip of the hat, then, to Starbucks for showing how easy it is to wake and smell the coffee.

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