The campaign that rocked China

By Melody Li

A 12-minute-long video for US sneaker company New Balance’s 110 birthday became one of the most influential viral campaigns in China in 2016. What does this campaign tell us about how to communicate to a Chinese audience? And how can such a lengthy video succeed in such a time poor era?

A commercial that looks nothing like a commercial

The documentary style campaign features Chinese music “Godfather” Jonathan Lee and explores his attitude to his life and music. At age 58, he looks back at his life journey and shares insightful stories behind his famous songs. Each story unfolds through his journey in a city: Tokyo, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Taipei. With each step in these places symbolising each step in life, the video ends with the slogan “Every Step Counts”.

In contrast to the West’s hero’s journey storytelling structure, this campaign applies a classic Chinese storytelling structure that we could describe as a looped story chain. It starts from the present with a question, goes back in time to find the answer in the development of the story then returns to the present at the end of the piece.

Cultural Strategies

Understanding local target audiences

New Balance’s target audience in China is young consumers. They are highly digitally connected and spend a large amount of time on Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat and Tencent, as opposed to watching TV. They like trendy things and western brands. On a cultural scale, they would sit between traditional Chinese and contemporary Western. On the negative side, they can favour chasing a trend based on a product’s look of a product instead of examining its underlying true value.

Taking a culturally different approach to storytelling 

Having Jonathan recast his fame to tell the story of an ordinary person gives the video an unexpected beginning. It sets the film’s tone and immediately raises questions in the audience’s mind. The middle section focuses on past times and places, but is cut with visuals of Jonathan as he is today. For example, we see him sitting on the other side of an empty desk, the very desk where the first interview of his career began. From a storytelling perspective, it leaves an emotional gap between what the audience sees and what the story tells, leaving it up to the audience’s imagination to fill the gap. The video’s emotional high point is when Jonathan takes the decision to walk away from his success. The intense pace that leads to this decision acts as a contrast to the peaceful final scenes, which lead the audience back to present. The penultimate screen displays the words: Every step counts, a slogan which is given a deeper resonance with Jonathan standing on top of the mountain. The video ends with the New Balance logo on a page of Jonathan’s hand writing in his studio.

Tapping into Chinese philosophy and aesthetic

This short film has a strong sense of Chinese philosophy and aesthetic. Landscapes are a classic way of expressing a person’s spirit. They often have double meanings. For example the footage of trees, which looks very much like Chinese calligraphy painting, is a visual metaphor for Jonathan’s state of mind. The contrast of Taipei’s noisy market and Vancouver’s still lake and mountains illustrate Jonathan’s thoughts after his escape. And while it’s a story of Jonathan Lee, he doesn’t appear very often. Instead we see the world as he sees it.

Linking Jonathan Lee with the brand

Jonathan is not a superficial megastar. His fame is rooted in his life philosophy. His personality is a blend of the traditional and the contemporary. What he values in life is not fame, status and money, but rather the art and meaning of life. During its production, someone asked Jonathan what he would like to achieve with this short film. He said: ”Nothing. Just tell a good story.” Jonathan Lee’s experience and modest character is a perfect role model for younger audiences.

So the entire video talks about Jonathan Lee’s spirit; his honesty about being ordinary, despite his huge success. With China being such a success-driven country, it shifts the audience’s idea of success, namely what you achieve is less important than the journey itself. As a brand campaign, if Jonathan’s values and spirit reach and touch the audience, then by extension, the brand encompasses these as well.

A China –not an Asian – story

The inspirational and emotional short film through which New Balance has chosen to speak to its young Chinese audience contrasts sharply with the highly technological campaign launched in Japan.

And it obviously touched a chord. Within five days of its release, the campaign had over 5,000,000 on Tencent and Youku channels and was nominated one of the top five campaigns to rock China in 2016.

This video was produced by advertising agency W. Director Chou Ko-Tai and creative director Li Sanshui.