Major Western companies - from the big banks and supermarket chains, to department stores and luxury cosmetic brands - are splashing out on Lunar New Year campaigns. And the budgets are only going to get bigger.
When Mark Zuckerberg, one of the world’s most powerful media owners, releases a Lunar New Year greeting video, you know this Asian cultural celebration is now a ‘mainstream’ event in the West.
“Last night at Facebook, we hosted our annual Lunar New Year celebrations…we have the honour of hosting famous chefs from China… for everyone at Facebook to experience,” announced a beaming Zuckerberg, together with wife and new baby daughter, via his Facebook page. They also took the opportunity to reveal their daughter’s Chinese name - Chen Mingyu.
Closer to home, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull used the occasion to link the New Lunar Year to his government’s key values of optimism, agility and innovation. In his Chinese New Year greeting message, the Australian PM said: “The Year of the Monkey highlights the value of agility, confidence, inventiveness and leadership”.
For nine years (1999-2008), I served as an elected local government councillor in Fairfield, one of the most diverse in the country - home to the largest Vietnamese community in Australia and also a large number of Chinese migrants. We tried with limited success to put Lunar New Year on the map. While the festival was celebrated with great colour and pride within the local community, it was largely ignored by the rest of Sydney.
Today, there are over 14 Lunar New Year festivals organised by councils and community groups all across Sydney, from Hurstville, Bankstown, and City of Sydney, to Chatswood and The Hills Shire.
China has now cemented its place as a world economic superpower and consumer. It accounts for around 29 per cent of global sales for Volkswagen and General Motors and around one in five cars sold by Nissan and Hyundai. From a global production perspective, it also produces three in four mobile phones, 87 per cent of personal computers and 52 per cent of colour televisions.
Locally, Mandarin overtook Italian for the first time as the most spoken language (other than English) in Australia, according to the 2011 Australian Census. China already accounts for the highest number of international students studying in Australia with 170,015 enrolments year to date to November 2015.
Annual Chinese tourist numbers exceeded 1 million for the first time in November 2015, an increase of more than 21 per cent. Chinese tourists are the biggest spenders in Australia, dropping $7.7 billion in the 12 months to September 2015, up 43 per cent. Federal Tourism Minister, Richard Colbeck recently floated the idea of translating road signs into Chinese to encourage more tourists to take road trips.
The exponentially growing interest in Lunar New Year reflects the spending power of the Chinese population on all fronts - local migrants, international students and very lucrative tourists.
Both Coles and Woolworths are offering special Lunar New Year product lines. In Cabramatta, Woolworths cater for the local Vietnamese community with pallets of watermelon. A Vietnamese New Year tradition involves slicing a whole watermelon on the first day of the year. If the inside is deep red, it symbolises good luck.
This year, Kit Kat joined in the celebrations, releasing four special Chinese New Year flavours - taro black sesame, red bean toasted coconut, tangerine crème brulee and almond cookie.
David Jones and Lancome have partnered on a Chinese New Year campaign promoted with Chinese language billboards at Sydney's Central train station.
The Sydney Morning Herald Lunar Markets by the Star is an attempt by these brands to cash in on the festivities. The markets will be serving up a range of Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean and Japanese dishes and drinks to eager punters.
In addition to advertising special retail offers, most of the major banks sponsor Lunar New Year festivals, give out free branded red packets to account holders, and hold lavish banquets for their premium customers.
Both Qantas and Cathay Pacific run special Chinese New Year fare specials. While Westfield has a series of New Year entertainment across their shopping centres worldwide.
All this activity is a boon for the local Chinese media. The front pages of most newspapers have been bought out by advertisers. The home page of Australia’s most popular Chinese language website is plastered with Lunar New Year retail advertising by major brands - Commonwealth Bank, Vodafone, ANZ, Philips and Qantas.
Mainstream publishers are getting into the act, too. Bauer Media has launched Chinese language editions of Australian Gourmet Traveller and Harper’s Bazaar for 2016 Lunar New Year.
While efforts to promote Lunar New Year as a cultural celebration may have had limited success a decade ago, the commercial opportunities are proving devastatingly successful.
My prediction is that Lunar New Year advertising budget will double in 2017, the Year of the Roster. After all, money talks.
Thang Ngo is managing director of IDENTITY Communications, part of IPG Mediabrands. He served nine years (1999-2008) as a councillor in Fairfield, and publishes the food blog, noodlies.com.
Disclosure: Kit Kat is an IPG Mediabrands client.