Will Marketers Snub the Black Sheep of the Chinese Zodiac?

Brands Jumped on Year of the Horse But Are Less Enthused About 2015's Meek Sheep

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Levi's found a playful use for sheep imagery
Levi's found a playful use for sheep imagery Credit: FCB Shanghai

In China, Lunar New Year is a time of big ad spending, when marketers look to tap into the holiday spirit and appeal to consumers who spend on travel, restaurants and gifts during the weeklong holiday. But when it comes to the Chinese zodiac, all animals were not created equal. And marketers play favorites.

The upcoming lunar year, which starts on Feb. 19, is the Year of the Sheep. And sadly for sheep, the gentle, bleating little ruminants could probably use a rebrand.

For starters, some traditional Chinese parents avoid having a baby born in a sheep year, given that it's regarded as the "most inauspicious for childbirth," according to China Daily, which predicted slow business at maternity hospitals because of a superstition the babies will be unlucky.

Some brands might avoid the creatures, too, because of the message they send. "A sheep is weak; it's kind of bullied; it doesn't really do anything -- it gets shepherded," said Milo Chao, chief strategy officer at TBWA China. Worth noting, the zodiac year is also called Year of the Goat or Ram, because all three use the same Chinese character.

Kenny Chang, founder of local agency VK35, said sheep, along with snakes, often get snubbed by marketers. Even a pig, say, has more positive connotations, he said: "The pig means fortune, because he's fat." As for snakes, he said, marketers sometimes fudge the design to make them look like skinny dragons, the luckiest of the 12 zodiac creatures.

Budweiser's Year of the Horse
Budweiser's Year of the Horse Credit: Anomaly

The zodiac year closing now, the Year of the Horse, an animal representing speed and success, proved popular with marketers. Many brands built their 2014 New Year campaigns in China around horses, an aspirational animal. Budweiser worked with Anomaly to send Clydesdales on a 3,100-mile trip around China, including a stop at the Great Wall of China for a 3-D show. Hermès opened a flagship store in Shanghai and had an equestrian-themed exhibit. Pepsi, a brand with zero equine associations, used local chat app WeChat to let people send New Year's audio greetings with the sound of galloping horses in the background.

Of course, there's no reason brands need to use zodiac animals in their campaigns for Lunar New Year, the most important holiday of the year in China and some other Asian countries. Using them can seem obvious and tacky if campaigns aren't done in a clever or authentic way. Homecoming and reunion are other common marketing themes for the period, given the massive amount of consumer travel -- making it the world's largest annual human migration.

Though not as popular with marketers as horses or dragons, sheep and goats can inspire a sense of playfulness or whimsy.

Burberry put out a message on WeChat showing gold-wrapped boxes and a wooden sheep toy. Levi's and FCB Shanghai did a print campaign encouraging people to go out to celebrate the New Year's holiday instead of staying home, and one image was a young partygoer riding a toy sheep.

Luxury brands also have a tradition of annual zodiac year editions, leading to more sheep and goat sightings. Piaget, for example, has a watch with a cloisonné enamel face depicting a goat. Chinese hot-pot chain Little Sheep, owned by Yum Brands, also the parent company of KFC and Pizza Hut, can leverage this zodiac year. And a few categories might profit from gifting, including wool or goat's milk, added Mr. Chao of TBWA.

Simone Zhang, chief strategy officer of Havas Worldwide, Shanghai, expects clever branded sheep-related New Year's greetings will pop up on social media. And since China's version of Mickey Mouse is a cartoon character called Pleasant Goat, she expects him to become a big celebrity endorser this year, especially for kid-related products.

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