Get out the Ginseng and Maotai: giving gifts during Chinese New Year

Ginseng. Vitamin supplements. Top-shelf liquor. Fancy snack foods. These might be a few of the things gracing my shopping list as gifts for Chinese New Year.

Ginseng a gift?

You bet. Ginseng, one of many treasured remedies in Chinese medicine, is a welcome gift for more senior folks. As are any number of nutritional and vitamin supplements. It’s an important distinction…never give these products to a younger audience, with perhaps the exception of vitamins or remedies for beautification. I remember I tried gifting Ginseng to the parents of a friend who clearly didn’t see themselves in the “Ginseng generation”…later on they ended up surreptitiously re-gifting it to their older relatives.

If you ever get the opportunity to visit a Chinese supermarket, go to the aisle selling these medicinals. The packaging is often a work of art in and of itself — and as this article attests to, at times over the top.

Why are these items so prized as gifts? I believe it is a modern reminder of the rich culture of Chinese traditional medicine, where certain remedies were nearly as prized as precious jewelry and metals.

Besides the tried-and-true products such as Ginseng and Spirulina, there is also a host of proprietary Chinese nutritional supplements. One of the most beloved of these is Qing Chun Bao, a capsule that offers the age-old yet somewhat dodgy promise of youthful vitality. I can’t speak to the efficacy of it, though if the preponderance of advertising for this product in China is any measure, people are clearly buying it.

Then there’s also the fast-growing market for Western vitamin brands. Because these are foreign (thus having a certain cache) and sometimes priced out of the reach of average consumers, they are hot Chinese New Year gifts. I’ll never forget how one of my neighbors in Hangzhou bragged about how people gifted her a slew of Amway vitamins. Amway was the first to make their mark in this category, but now recent newcomers such as Nuskin are grabbing market share.

Now for a nice shot of…er at…alcohol. During Chinese New Year, I think the advertising was almost half and half on nutritional products and alcohol. Nianye fan — the most important meal of the year that falls on the eve of Chinese New Year — always includes a fine wine or liquor. Top-shelf brands such as Wuliangchun, Jiannanchun or Maotai are prized nearly as much as the traditional Chinese remedies — and it shows in the pricing. Men especially will feel flattered to receive a “famous brand” of wine or liquor, since they tend to be the ones imbibing at the table.

Cigarettes also need a plug here. While cigarettes aren’t special to Chinese New Year, they often go hand-in-hand with alcohol. If you’re going to give the gift of cigarettes choose a well-respected brand such as Marlboro or 555. Anything else might be social suicide.

Snacks shouldn’t be overlooked…things such as pastries, cookies and nutritious biscuits. Seniors love them during the Chinese New Year holiday, and they work for just about everyone else.

So, you’re marketing your product in China for Chinese New Year. Make sure you don’t forget the packaging, something I alluded to above. Packaging matters. We’re talking about a country here where face is extremely important. Good packaging helps to preserve and perhaps lend face to individuals. Most of the nutritional supplements, liquors and wines, and some snacks have special packaging just for the holidays, including a special bag to match the item.

Also think about how to make your packaging design more auspicious — in color, symbolism and name. Chinese people quite often make choices based on the inherent or implied good fortune. This isn’t going to, say, save your product from utter failure. But it gives your audience one less reason to walk away.

Even if you’re not selling the traditional Chinese New Year gifts, you can still get in on the season. How might your product fit into the holiday — or evoke a sense of the holiday? Advertisers do it all the time during the Christmas season, and the same could be done with Chinese New Year. Consider cross-promotion with a traditional Chinese New Year gift that fits with your company’s mission or product.

If you’re doing business in China, keep up your relationships with a well-chosen gift for Chinese New Year. Here are my short recommendations:

  • Male Chinese executives/husbands of Chinese executives: top-shelf liquor, wine or cigarettes
  • Female Chinese executives/wives of Chinese executives: nutritional supplements for beautification such as Qing Chun Bao, or vitamins from a foreign company such as Amway or Nuskin.

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