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Why Disney Merch Is Suddenly Big in China

Gucci, Adidas and Uniqlo are all playing it safe this Chinese New Year. Will their cutesy collaborations pay off during one of the biggest moments in the global shopping calendar?
Gucci Chinese New Year 2020 Campaign | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Casey Hall

SHANGHAI, China – Mickey Mouse has overtaken China. A quick stroll down Nanjing Xi Lu, one of Shanghai's most popular shopping streets, takes shoppers past Uniqlo, Gap and Gucci – all of which are stocking Mickey-related products. The 91-year-old cartoon character's friendly visage stares out from almost every other shop window.

China’s 1.4 billion people are gearing up for the biggest holiday of the year, with an official week-long holiday beginning January 24, the eve of the Lunar New Year. Despite concerns about the deadly coronavirus that has spread from Wuhan to other major Chinese cities, people will travel in their hundreds of millions to celebrate with family as the calendar ticks over to the “Year of the Rat” on January 25.

The upcoming shunian, or "Rat Year" has proven to be something of a boom for The Walt Disney Company, with its endearing rodent mascot representing a safe way for brands of all price-points across the fashion, beauty and accessories sectors to give a nod to the New Year and to traditional Chinese culture, without being too serious or controversial.

"In China, we have been preparing for the 'Year of the Mouse' for the last three years," Kermid Rahman, vice president and general manager for consumer products commercialisation at The Walt Disney Company, Greater China and Korea, explained. Though the Chinese term shunian is generally translated as "Year of the Rat", the word shu actually means rat and mouse interchangeably.

Li Ning x Mickey Mouse Campaign 2020 | Source: Courtesy

“Our China-based creative team integrated Chinese elements into Mickey and Minnie product style guides in a locally relevant way. They developed approximately 20,000 SKU localised products for the Chinese Lunar New Year,” Rahman added.

In addition to Uniqlo, Gap and Gucci plugging their Mickey collaborations in the lead-up to Spring Festival, other domestic and international fashion and sportswear brands feature limited edition Chinese New Year products with Disney's Mickey and Minnie Mouse characters, including Columbia, Li Ning, Adidas, Urban Revivo, Chocoolate, Vero Moda, Peacebird, Zhang Dayi and Metersbonwe.

In the beauty sector, Innisfree, SK-II, Neutrogena, Dr Jart+, Elizabeth Arden and Maybelline also have Mickey-related Chinese New Year products; and Pandora and Chow Tai Fook are releasing Mickey Mouse accessories as part of their holiday offerings.

“In China, we not only work with global high-end brands, but we work with more than 450 local licensee partners… [to bring] better products, greater innovation and happiness to more Chinese consumers,” Rahman added.

As an aesthetic proposition, the Year of the Rat presents inherent challenges, as opposed to, for example, the Year of the Dragon or Horse, animals that are more easily rendered in a visually appealing way. This makes Mickey an enticing choice, but perhaps more important than looking good, Mickey is also a safe choice.

Throughout their history of doing business in China and interacting with local holidays, Chinese New Year collaborations have notoriously been hit and miss for global brands with numerous missteps being seized upon by Chinese netizens for ridicule. In 2019, Burberry bore the brunt of criticism with its campaign depicting unsmiling, unconventional family portraits that were widely labelled "creepy" by Chinese consumers.

I think after a number of cultural shocks... all of the international brands are trying to be safer.

Criticism of international luxury brands from Chinese consumers was something of a theme throughout 2019, with a crescendo in August that saw brands from Versace, to Givenchy and Coach, lose Chinese celebrity ambassadors who quit in protest following the release of products considered offensive for labelling Taiwan and Hong Kong as countries separate from China.

This trend has seemingly made international brands even more gun shy when it comes to Chinese New Year products and campaigns in 2020, according to Jason Yu, the Shanghai-based general manager of market research firm Kantar Worldpanel.

“I think after a number of cultural shocks and very expensive lessons learned last year, all of the international brands are trying to be safer,” he said.

However, not everyone has been won over by the Mickey Mouse collections, particularly at the luxury end of the fashion spectrum. One of WeChat’s top-ranked fashion accounts, iiiher, penned an article that was particularly critical of Gucci’s collaboration, ridiculing the cost of 30 to 40 thousand yuan ($4,350 to $5,800) products and comparing them to similar products available from fast fashion brands and Taobao stores for a fraction of the price.

Gucci’s collection has received plenty of coverage within China, largely because of its co-operation with high-profile KOLs such as Mr Bags and Fil Xiaobai, who along with celebrity ambassador Ni Ni were filmed enjoying Disneyland with their families wearing the collection, vlogs that were then pushed out on Weibo.

Gucci Chinese New Year 2020 campaign | Source: Courtesy

Mr Bags, whose real name is Tao Liang, told BoF that Gucci in particular had been paying attention to the growth in influence that KOLs have enjoyed in China over the past year, with as many as 48 percent of online consumers in China buying products directly from links provided by KOLs.

“More attention is paid to the influence of KOLs [and] Gucci quickly captured the influence of KOL’s Weibo [accounts] and built a large, breakthrough campaign [around that]. It’s actually very powerful and timely," he said.

As to whether the “cuteness” of a Disney collaboration might diminish the positioning of a luxury brand, Jason Yu says that on the contrary it helps brands connect with younger consumers, a key demographic for international luxury companies.

According to a 2019 report from McKinsey, China’s post-80s consumers (the first generation in China to grow up with Mickey Mouse, following the reform and opening period of the late-70s) account for more than half of the total luxury spend by Chinese consumers; the post-90s generation, meanwhile, are the fastest growing luxury consumer cohort in China.

“For younger consumers Mickey Mouse is going to be a very popular choice,” Yu said. “I would say that all the luxury brands are trying to launch products that are appealing to younger consumers, rather than the classic luxury consumer target.”

Interestingly, these age groups have also been targeted by The Walt Disney Company in China, with a shift from products targeting children to those targeting young adults in recent years.

“Currently, 55 percent of Disney consumer products are purchased by young adults and 45 percent are by children. Ten years ago, the ratio for adults and children was 15 percent and 85 percent respectively,” Disney’s Rahman said.

There’s little doubt the safe haven of cuteness and universal appeal of Disney’s favourite mouse has won Chinese New Year in 2020. Although there’s not much in the way of innovative campaigns breaking through the noise this season, perhaps brands are happy to just keep their heads down and avoid attracting attention for the wrong reasons.

Additional reporting from Jing Wang

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China Decoded wants to hear from you. Send tips, suggestions, complaints and compliments to our Shanghai-based Asia Correspondent casey.hall@businessoffashion.com.

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