Festivals are not just celebrations of traditions and customs but also an occasion, or excuse, for people to indulge and spend money.
Across Asia the line is blurred, with traditional celebrations like Christmas increasingly commercialized, and others, like China’s Singles Day, clearly focused on shopping.
Some businesses are notoriously good at capitalizing on these occasions, while others are even the masterminds behind them.
China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba is one hugely successful company in this area.
Singles Day — or the 11.11 Global Shopping Festival, as it is officially called — has become a truly international shopping event, spreading quickly from the Chinese mainland across Southeast Asia and now expected to influence Western countries as well.
CELEBRITIES including fashion designer Victoria Beckham (center) and her husband, soccer star David Beckham (second right), at the 2016 Tmall 11.11 Global Shopping Festival gala in the southern city of Shenzhen. Alibaba has turned a festival to celebrate single people into a shopping event that has spread from China across the world. AFP
Sales on its e-commerce platform exceeded 102 billion yuan ($14.7 billion) this year, topping last year’s 91.2 billion yuan.
This makes it the world’s largest shopping event, dwarfing Black Friday and Cyber Monday, two major sales events in the United States.
11.11 is forecast to grow 40 percent year-on-year, according to market research company Fung Global Retail & Technology.
To create a festival with some marketing effectiveness is not difficult, but to create a festival with this level of success is phenomenal, said Jiang Lan, an assistant professor of marketing at City University of Hong Kong.
“Events are a pretty easy marketing tool. Businesses use it all the time. It could be the company’s anniversary or just a memorable date like 11.11. They just need to create a good story and spread it,” said Jiang.
“People love to have a reason to buy things. It’s all about creating that desire."
“There are so many festivals in a year. There is always a reason to spend. It’s never ending. Retailers need to know how to make it into an experience.”
However, not all consumers are happy with this. Some disapprove of monetizing festivals, especially religious ones. Overhyping a festival for commerce can dilute the meaning of the event, some say. These marketing practices are also making traditional festivals increasingly costly.
Even the traditional Chinese festival Tomb-Sweeping Day and the Buddhist and Taoist Hungry Ghost Festival are propping up some businesses.
These businesses sell items to be burned as offerings for the dead, which include so-called hell money and paper replicas of mansions, cars and luxury fashion goods.
“It can get expensive. You want to pay respects to your ancestors, so you buy all these things that people tell you to buy,” said one Chinese consumer.
“You kind of know it’s unnecessary but then it’s only once a year and everyone else is doing it, so you follow the trend.”
In China, Mother’s Day is a relatively new imported festival, but combined with the country’s traditions of filial piety, it has already evolved into a tradition of spending.
The upshot is that filial piety is becoming costlier as the population becomes more affluent and expectations increase.
Another unique festival is White Day in Japan, which takes place on March 14, exactly one month after Valentine’s Day.
On White Day, men are supposed to give return gifts — usually white chocolates — to women who gifted them chocolates on Valentine’s Day.
Flowers, candies and other gifts are popular along with the chocolates. Many retailers in Asian cities use in-store gift displays to remind men about the occasion.
In South Korea, where romance and love are heavily emphasized, Christmas is romanticized for those who do not celebrate the true meaning of the holiday.
Religion plays a big role at Christmas for many families, but non-Christians also make the most of this unique holiday, indulging in gift giving and fancy dinners.
“Endowed with the meaning of romance, some festivals are gaining popularity in Asia, especially among the youth,” Neil Wang, Greater China president at consultancy Frost & Sullivan, told China Daily Asia Weekly.
Festivals have long been used to make shopping more entertaining. Aiming to generate sales and create brand awareness, businesses often adapt ad campaigns and promotions to the occasions.
Some traditional methods include live entertainment with commercial opportunities, sponsored VIP parties, customized storefronts, pop-up stores and even virtual reality (VR) booths.
The theme behind Singles Day is simple and straightforward: Have fun and celebrate independence without a significant other, almost like an anti-Valentine’s Day.
The most widely accepted story of 11.11 is that in 1993, four male students at Nanjing University, in East China’s Jiangsu province, met to discuss how to break free of the boredom of single life.
One suggested that they choose Nov 11 in tribute to the loneliness of the number one, and make it an annual day to celebrate singlehood.
The idea evolved into a university tradition and an excuse for single friends to visit karaoke bars and have fun together. There are even traditions like eating youtiao — fried dough strips shaped like the number one.
“Alibaba created the Double Eleven Shopping Festival in the name of celebrating Singles Day,” said Wang from Frost & Sullivan.
He added that Alibaba attracts a large amount of consumers by rolling out big promotions in the run-up to the event.
Through social media, it has become easier than ever for such festivals to catch fi re and spread. Alibaba succeeded with 11.11 by utilizing its e-commerce platform to mobilize millions to splurge.
And this year, Alibaba went a step further by launching its VR shopping experience to enhance customer engagement with brands.
With special headsets, which can be used with users’ smartphones, customers in China are virtually teleported to stores, even ones overseas.
Online shoppers can virtually walk around Macy’s fl agship store in New York City, for example, and simply nod to purchase an item through Alipay.
Alibaba also released an augmented reality mobile game two weeks before Singles Day. Augmented reality is the same location-based technology behind the hugely popular mobile game Pokemon Go.
Alibaba’s game allows users to follow a virtual cat mascot to participating brands such as Starbucks, KFC and Shanghai Disneyland, to unlock and win “red packets”. This drives traffi c from online stores to physical stores in a concept known as online-to-offl ine, or O2O.
In October, Alibaba also hosted an eight-hour fashion show in Shanghai on its video site Youku and mobile apps. Viewers could order items during the show in real time.
“We’re doing something pretty innovative. From a marketing perspective, it is a very engaging integration of entertainment and shopping,” said Chris Tung, chief marketing offi cer at Alibaba.
For this year’s Singles Day, Alibaba named US pop singer Katy Perry as its “global ambassador”, leveraging on Western appeal and internationalization.
The Countdown Gala on the eve of Singles Day, which featured Perry, helped to generate much hype. The trick of eff ectively using live events and physical spaces is to make them as video and picture friendly as possible. Even traditional methods cannot neglect the power of social media.
Brands can capitalize on the hype of a Christmas event, for example, if it looks good on Instagram. This is especially important for businesses targeting millennials, broadly defi ned as those born between 1980 and 2000. Tech savvy retailers may find it easier to reach millennials through digital platforms, compared to retailers who rely on more traditional strategies.
According to the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, this mobile- and social media-obsessed target group has global spending power of more than $2.45 trillion.
Unlike any other generation, millennials choose the information they want to be exposed to, as well as how that information is delivered.
By liking and following brands on social media, they customize their exposure to advertising based on their preferences. Companies giving exclusive offers or appealing to the interests of millennials are more likely to see an increase in sales as a result of online interaction. Businesses in Asia are smart at this, said Wang.
“Asian consumers show an increasing willingness to make purchases, for themselves and for their families or friends, during festivals including Christmas and Valentine’s Day,” he said.
“Businesses in Asia have seized the opportunities. By running promotional campaigns such as discounts, coupons and lucky draws, Asian businesses have successfully expanded the influences of the festivals and attracted consumers.”
A comment on a Facebook post about Singles Day reads: “Now we are even commercializing being single. How sad!”
If Alibaba succeeds in having 11.11 benchmarked alongside Christmas and Chinese new year as a family festival, the trend of using festivals as a marketing ploy can only gain more momentum.