Happy Year of the Yang Wood Horse – A Lesson in Marketing

Once again, we are coming up to another Chinese New Year (January 31). This coming year will be the year of the horse in the Chinese lunar calendar.

Given our global interconnectivity, it is difficult to imagine anyone who’s not familiar with at least some of the lore and traditions associated with this Chinese holiday: The sprucing up and cleaning out; the reunion dinners on New Year’s Eve; the lucky rhyming foods on tables; the colors of red and gold; the necessity of new outfits; the unforgivable crime of uttering unlucky phrases.

Highlighting these practices seems so pre-Google. Anyone who wants to know about these colorful festivities can probably get more than what they want from Wikipedia. And of course, like all celebrations of a New Year no matter where you are in the world or what culture you belong to, it doesn’t stray too far away from the usual script of sending off the bad and evil, and welcoming a good and prosperous beginning. The rituals might be different. The storyline remains the same.

Looking at it from a marketing pint of view, a typical New Year celebration is therefore as exciting as counting the rings on a redwood stump. They all look the same, just bigger with each passing year. Not the Chinese New Year though. Here’s how the Chinese win the marketing award of the year…..

Each year in the Chinese lunar calendar is denoted by one of twelve astrological signs: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.

Chinese annuals

Every year is in turn associated with one of ten heavenly stems (天干,pronounced “Tian Gan”).  Each of these ten heavenly stems is in turn associated with one of the five elements of Chinese astrology:  Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. The elements are rotated every two years while a “Yin” and “Yang” association alternates every year. This ingenious system produces a combined cycle that only repeats itself once every 60 years.   For example, the year of the Yang Fire Rat occurred in 1936 and in 1996, 60 years apart.  While a Gemini is a Gemini is a Gemini, whether they were born June 14 in 1936 or 1996 or 2006, a Yang Fire Rat is not the same as a Yang Water Rat, nor are they a Ying Fire Rat.

If you’re still with me, no doubt you will now be asking yourself, “What does this have to do with marketing ingenuity?”

Here it is:  It’s all about perceived uniqueness by your users.  With a year that only repeats itself every 60 years, every year is unique.  Think about all the marketing possibilities.  Take for example, the time honored need of humans to foretell one’s destiny or fortune.  Voila! ‘Open sesame’ to an immense marketing opportunity with billions of users.  The sheer number of permutations and combinations of an individual’s birth year with the coming year would require the compilation of mountains of well sought after information.  And as we well know, he who generates data and information is king – or queen – worshipped by not only users, but more importantly, advertisers.  Mind you, we’re only talking about the exposure at the beginning of each New Year.  Any important event during the year will warrant another round of “timely reading”.  That’s the marketing treasure trove.  If you don’t believe me, try Googling “2014 Year of the Horse Predictions”.

Here’s a piece of personal anecdotal evidence. Between the years of 1991 and 1995, as a culturally astute manager based in Hong Kong, I had to hire a Feng Shui (风水) – i.e. geomancy – master at the beginning of every Chinese New Year to provide advice to each of my team members.  This included an office layout consultation as well as one-on-one “readings”.  Usually a full eight hours – and a few thousand Hong Kong dollars – later, everyone could then feel confident and comfortable that we had effectively sent off the bad and welcomed the good.  In case you are wondering, we were working in regional offices of American Fortune 100 corporations.  Kung Xi Fa Cai or Kung Hei Fatt Choi, indeed!!  There’s your entire market segment:  Corporate Feng Shui consulting.  All thanks to the unique combination of the calendar, the location and the individuals – infinite permutations and combinations.

So what? All I’m saying is:  if you know you need to do something over and over, make sure it is differentiated enough that people can still be engaged and excited.  Think Apple.  Think of ways to make it fresh and different even though the essence is the same.

To walk my talk, here are a few unique things you should know, or could do with, your global, remote, virtual colleagues to celebrate another Chinese New Year:

  • Show a little unique knowledge of the Chinese calendar.  Instead of saying “Happy Year of the Horse”, say “Happy Jia Wu Nian”, which translates into “Happy Yang Wood Horse Year”.
  • Show a little unique knowledge of the meaning of the horse as a symbol of energy and power in the Chinese zodiac.  Instead of the trite and true “Gong Xi Fa Cai” (恭喜发财) or “Xin Nian Kuai Le” (新年快乐), wish your colleagues and associates a Happy New Year with the following spoken phrases for the year of the horse:

 “Long Ma Jing Shen” (龙马精神) – literally translated to “May you have the spirit of dragons and horses. “

“Ma Dao Cheng Gong”(马到成功)- translation:  “May the arrival of the horse bring you great successes.”

To all my friends, colleagues and associates celebrating this festive New Year season, have a wonderful holiday with your loved ones.  I hope to see you soon in the Year of the Horse!

wood horse 2


About the author:

THOng An expert practitioner in organizational effectiveness, change management, performance management, leadership development and employee training, TH Ong is Global Integration's Vice President for the Americas and is spearheading the company's Asian expansion. Company profile: TH Ong.

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