A collage of various Lunar New Year ads featuring Asian models, and other products, with a red background.

The do’s and don’ts of Lunar New Year branding

Not your typical gift guide, but some candid critiques you've been secretly itching to receive

In recent years, various companies have marketed products and had campaigns for Lunar New Year.

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Xintian Wang

Growing up in China, Lunar New Year was more than a holiday on the calendar—it came with “sacred rituals” that were ingrained in my family's traditions. Mom had her list of “must-dos” to ensure luck and prosperity in the coming year. Dumping trash on Lunar New Year was strictly forbidden, as it was believed to symbolize discarding good fortune along with the waste. Likewise, trimming my hair before the holiday was necessary to rid myself of any lingering bad luck from the past year. Of course, new shoes and jackets were a must to step into the new year with a fresh start. As a child, I found these customs tedious, but amidst it all, the excitement of receiving red pocket money and witnessing the dazzling fireworks brought immense joy.

It wasn’t until I came to the United States later in life that I felt a jarring disconnect from my cultural roots. Instead of the familiar traditions, I was bombarded with promotional emails and advertisements, each claiming to offer something special for the Lunar New Year. Yet, upon eagerly opening them, I was disheartened to discover that many simply slapped a zodiac sign on a red item and called it a celebration.

The chasm between these commercialized versions of my cultural heritage and the authentic traditions of my upbringing left me questioning, what are brands doing wrong during the holiday? Over the years, several brands have faced backlash for their Lunar New Year campaigns, suggesting a lack of cultural sensitivity and awareness.

Dolce & Gabbana came under fire in 2018 after releasing a number of controversial Lunar New Year videos featuring an Asian model who was having difficulty eating Italian food with chopsticks. Asian customers felt alienated from the brand as a result of this insensitive behavior and its apparent ignorance of the holiday. Similarly, Burberry’s 2019 Lunar New Year campaign provoked a barrage of criticism on social media, as netizens compared the visuals to eerie Asian horror movies. The campaign's bleak tone failed to resonate with the celebratory spirit of the holiday, highlighting a lack of cultural research by the designers.

As we welcome this Lunar New Year, which includes Chinese New Year, Seollal in Korea, Tet in Vietnam, and other cultural celebrations, the revered zodiac sign of the dragon takes center stage. Known for its auspicious symbolism of wisdom, wealth, and dignity, the Year of the Dragon represents rebirth and optimism. However, some campaigns continue to be controversial in spite of the significance of the holiday.

On Jan. 12, Lululemon unveiled its Lunar New Year capsule collection, accompanied by a short film called Be Spring, featuring actress Michelle Yeoh practicing the Chinese martial art of Wing Chun. While some viewers found solace in the stunning visuals, others voiced concerns about the context—especially in light of the controversial remarks made by Chip Wilson, the brand's founder and former CEO. In a recent interview with Forbes, Wilson, who stepped down following his controversial remarks about body diversity in 2013, expressed disapproval toward Lululemon's approach to diversity and inclusion, stating, "They’re trying to become like the Gap, everything to everybody…And I think the definition of a brand is that you’re not everything to everybody…You’ve got to be clear that you don’t want certain customers coming in." Meanwhile, the product offerings of the Lunar New Year collection primarily feature traditional colors such as red and orange, but lack innovative designs that would deepen consumers' understanding of the holiday's cultural significance and its connection to these auspicious colors.

Still, I’ve seen some brands trying to capitalize on the holiday by throwing out irrelevant products this year. For instance, Stanley—the brand behind the viral cups—released a limited edition set of Lunar New Year quenchers adorned in red and white with Camellia flowers and Sakura blossom patterns. Yet, the design fails to establish a meaningful connection to the holiday, appearing more as a token gesture than a genuine celebration.

Fashion powerhouse Ralph Lauren also joins the Lunar New Year festivities with a series of red shirts and sweaters. However, one particular design crosses the line into cultural appropriation. The red shirt in question, evidently drawing inspiration from the Chinese tunic suit (or The Mao Suit), neglects to acknowledge its cultural origin or the historical significance behind the traditional clothing. Instead, it merely describes the garment as a "reimagined Oxford shirt with frog closures along the front."

Netizens on social media are calling for a more respectful approach that involves transparently acknowledging the inspiration from various cultures rather than misleadingly attributing it to a single source.

Another controversial incident occurred when clothing brand Aritzia, supposedly drawing inspiration from a Korean American designer's memories surrounding the holiday, missed the mark to acknowledge the Chinese elements in this series. While implying drawing inspiration from the designer’s childhood memories, the collection predominantly features elements of Chinese culture, such as the color red, red pockets adorned with the Chinese "fu" character, and motifs like dumplings, lanterns, and mandarins—none of which align with traditional Korean Lunar New Year customs. Although it’s exciting to see AA+PI representation in the design team, some netizens on social media are calling for a more respectful approach that involves transparently acknowledging the inspiration from various cultures rather than misleadingly attributing it to a single source.

Lunar New Year branding done right

Even though some brands are still struggling to get it right, there are shining examples of those who are embracing Lunar New Year with authenticity and respect, acknowledging the diversity in Asian cultures.

Red boxes filled with gifts are displayed on a table, labelled with "Lady M" and Chinese new year designs such as dragons.

Lady M has curated a Lunar New Year gift set to embody the festive spirit.

Courtesy of Lady M

Lady M, renowned for its exquisite desserts, has curated a Lunar New Year gift set and red bean mille crepes that embody the festive spirit. This limited-edition gift box opens to reveal a pop-up display of spinning plum blossoms, symbolizing prosperity and growth. CEO Ken Romaniszyn tells JoySauce that it’s his commitment to making the holiday special for customers every year, saying, “These limited-time offerings not only tantalize the taste buds but also pay homage to the holiday's significance with their symbolic red hues and auspicious ingredients like red bean and sesame.”

On the table are a glass filled with a brown fruity beverage, a small bottle labeled "Elix," a golden spoon, and a pomegranate. The items sit on top of a red envelope.

Elix is a New York-based wellness brand inspired by traditional Chinese medicine.

Courtesy of Elix

Elix, a New York-based traditional Chinese medicine-inspired wellness brand, embraces the tradition of "lucky cash" in its Lunar New Year campaign, and extends this tradition to its diverse consumers, fostering inclusivity and connection. Founder Lulu Ge says, “Growing up, I always looked forward to receiving 'lucky cash' as a symbol of good fortune to start the year off right. I am excited to share this cultural tradition beyond the AA+PI communities, where 90 percent of our customers are non-Asian." Additionally, the brand educates its audience on the significance of the Year of the Dragon in its blog post, deepening cultural understanding of the holiday.

A small black box contains incense.

Elorea

Courtesy of Elorea

The New York-based perfume brand rooted in Korean heritage, Elorea, collaborates with artists to create a Korean roof tiles-inspired incense holder and hand-made incense in the Year of the Dragon. Co-founder Su min Park says, “This year feels special to me because my zodiac sign is a dragon. Every Lunar New Year, our family celebrates with ‘charye,’ a memorial ceremony for our ancestors. During ‘charye,’ we light incense to cleanse any negativities and pay respects to the spirits of our ancestors." Through its collaboration with Korean artisans and exploration of ancestral tradition, Elorea celebrates and honors the cultural significance of the Lunar New Year.

New York-based jewelry brand Maison Miru intertwines tradition with philanthropy in their Lunar New Year campaign. Founder Trisha Okubo draws inspiration from her own family's heritage, infusing elements of jade—a symbol of prosperity and protection—into their designs. Moreover, Maison Miru partners with local nonprofit Heart of Dinner to support Asian elders, embodying the spirit of giving and gratitude during the holiday season.

On a table, there is a display of half a dragon fruit and a cheesecake with red glaze designed to look like a dragon. At the center of the table is a closed jar of red jam.

Rooted Fare

Courtesy of Rooted Fare

In Los Angeles, the spreads company Rooted Fare celebrates Lunar New Year with innovative flavors and storytelling. Co-founders Ashley Xie and Hedy Yu draw from their shared heritage to create spreads that capture the essence of Chinese cuisine with modern twists. This year, they created a trio pack with their original Crunchy Black Sesame Butter, Pineapple Cake Cashew Butter (a limited-edition holiday spread brought back by popular demand), and their newest Red Dragon Passion Fruit Spread. In addition to its campaign, Rooted Fare shares stories of Lunar New Year traditions, fostering meaningful connections and dialogue within their community on its website.

As I navigate my cultural roots in the United States, I find these brands to be empowering, as they tell authentic stories of Asian and Pacific Islander diasporic communities and offer nuanced cultural representation in their Lunar New Year campaigns. While the traditions of my homeland may evolve in the face of globalization, I find solace in embracing the tapestry of Asian traditions that unite us all in celebration.

Published on February 9, 2024

Words by Xintian Wang

Xintian Tina Wang is a bilingual journalist covering cultural stereotypes and innovations, including gender and sexuality, arts, business, and technology. Her recent work appears in TIME, ARTNews, Huffpost, Teen Vogue, VICE, The Daily Beast, Inc. Magazine etc. She is also the director of events for the Asian American Journalist Association (AAJA) New York Chapter. As a journalist of color and a visual storyteller, she is constantly speaking for cultural minority groups whose voices are buried in mainstream discourses. Her documentary Size 22 won the "Best Short Documentary" at the Boston Short Film Festival and an "Audience Award" at the New England Film Festival. Her photography work is featured in TIME, HuffPost, The Sunday Times, Air Mail, etc. Visit her website at www.xintianwang.net.

Art by Vivian Lai

Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.