The allure of borrowing interest by association with the most iconic of all Chinese zodiacs will be irresistible for many brands but your brand’s distinctive identity risks being consumed by generic Chinese New Year and fiery Dragon clichés, warns Stephen Drummond.

Each year, marketers must grapple with creating a distinctive and compelling CNY campaign which may include special-edition pack designs, retail activations and supporting ad campaigns.

Chinese New Year (CNY) campaigns are one of, if not the most important part of the marketing calendar; it’s spread over a relatively long period and can account for 25% of an FMCG brand’s annual marketing spending. A successful CNY campaign will not only have a short-term sales effect but if done well it will influence buyer behaviour for the entire year ahead.

The rule of thumb is that the 'cooler' the zodiac animal, the more emphasis you’ll see on that year’s animal compared to generic traditional Chinese New Year iconography. So, with the dragon being the coolest of them all, expect to see plenty in 2024.

These AI images were created with the assistance of StableDiffusionXL with the prompt 'confused dragon in Chinese supermarket'

The problem marketers face is akin to being lost in a crowd of partygoers all wearing similarly themed fancy-dress costumes. Brands will strive to ‘out-dragon’ their competitors. Predictably mobile screens, TVs (yes, there are some still left) and shelves will be flooded with traditional iconic dragons, cute dragons, 3D dragons, and talking AI-driven dragons. KOLs will don dragon onesies.

With wall-to-wall dragons, brands risk the worst of all fiery deaths, that is to be ignored or simply unable to be recognised by shoppers.

Just like Christmas, leftover special-edition packs can pose a problem and need to be factored in too. There’s nothing sadder than a Santa-themed gift pack in February

For a theme that is more animal zodiac-based to hold year-long shelf-life relevance, plan for the post-CNY period and design your packaging in a way that remains relevant throughout the year to mitigate the risk of leftover stock.

The bottom line is: don’t let your distinctive brand elements be consumed by dragon imagery. Instead of merely slapping a dragon on your packaging, consider how the dragon can be a support act rather than overwhelming your assets. In design, carefully consider how CNY and zodiac iconography can be integrated as a secondary role rather than fighting with your assets. A gold-standard benchmark is Santa drinking Coca-Cola.

If your brand does plan to celebrate with special packs, promotions or advertising, the balancing act required involves ensuring that your distinctive brand assets are not overwhelmed by generic zodiac or CNY imagery.

There’s no formulaic best practice rule on how to execute this in practice. The desired outcome – for those brands that do choose to partake – is to ensure recognisability and have some relevant celebratory elements of the upcoming Year Of the Wood Dragon.

In thematic storytelling, avoid the well-worn homecoming story (for example), it’s been done too often (and often very well) by the big players like Coke, Pepsi and Apple. Your brand stories need to be as distinctive and original as your design assets.

Most importantly, think from a customer perspective about how your brand will remain recognisable when shelves and screens are aggregated with so many dragons (or insert another animal zodiac next year).