McDonald's China just introduced intriguing new products for Chinese New Year: the Emperor's Best Shrimp Burger, the Empress' Pineapple Burger and a beverage that translates, loosely, as Smiling Concubine's Lychee Bubble Tea. Names like that beg for an explanation.
To build buzz about the unexpected ingredients, a campaign from Leo Burnett Shanghai tapped into China's passion for historical TV costume dramas. The shows, such as "The Empress of China," starring actress Fan Bingbing, feature elaborate costumes, tales of love and palace intrigue. Playing on that pop culture phenomenon, the agency did a series of surprising cartoon ads with a historical theme, which rolled out on digital channels including ubiquitous mobile app WeChat.
It can be dicey for Western brands to be too literal when referring to Chinese culture, but this approach works because it blends tradition with humor and a contemporary twist. The campaign plays with slang and youth culture. Under the influence of costume dramas, some young people on social media jokingly call themselves by the pronouns the emperor and empress called themselves long ago, 'zhen' and 'bengong.' Those are the characters used in the names of McDonald's new burgers.
The ad for the lychee tea tells a tale familiar to many in China, about an emperor's consort who so loved lychees that officials went to great lengths to fetch them for her from faraway southern regions. (Watch that spot above). Another ad shows the legend of the pineapple's introduction to China; people had no idea what to do with such a strange, spiky object. The theme of all the ads is that people no longer have to make such an effort to get those delicacies – they're at McDonald's.
Leo Burnett did historical research at the National Library of China for the project. In China, "young adults take a lot of pride in traditional Chinese culture being represented in a contemporary, fun kind of way," said Angie Wong, general manager of Leo Burnett Shanghai, which worked on the campaign with Chinese animation studio Wuhu and director Willis Wong of production house Tribe.
That approach – putting a contemporary spin on traditional symbols -- is popular lately with marketers in China. Coca-Cola's annual Chinese New Year campaign has referred to a traditional form of Chinese folk art, clay dolls; one year it turned the clay figurines into cute social media stickers to send on WeChat. An eye-catching animated campaign that went viral on WeChat last year was from the Forbidden City, the former imperial palace in Beijing, and showed a Ming Dynasty emperor rapping and wearing sunglasses.
McDonald's campaign has rolled out for several weeks on digital platforms ahead of Chinese New Year, which starts on Jan. 28, starting with the videos about the lychee tea and the pineapple-chicken burger. The third video, promoting a chewy shrimp patty burger topped with kung pao sauce, is about a pregnant empress with a craving for shrimp. It was promoted Friday via ads on WeChat newsfeeds and targeted to likely McDonald's customers, using a new ad format allowing for vertical videos on mobile devices.
Fast food is a competitive sector in China, and brands are constantly introducing new products and concepts to catch the eye of millennials. Taco Bell just relaunched in Shanghai, with an upscale store concept and alcohol on the menu. Pizza Hut's new sit-down concept restaurant has robots greeting customers at the door.