China’s Traditional Gifting Culture Gets a Digital Upgrade


Casey Hall | February 14, 2018

Luxury brands are capitalising on China's peak gift-gifting season by offering consumers the option to digitally send gifts through Chinese platforms such as Tencent's WeChat Mini Programs.

China’s traditional gifting culture, combined with a proclivity for digital payments and WeChat’s infrastructure, which allows for the purchase and transfer of digital items of value from one friend to another with only a few clicks, equals a market primed for digital gifting.

In China, it’s peak gift-giving season, with Chinese New Year traditionally a time for hong bao, or red packets, filled with money exchanged between family, friends and business acquaintances – as well as a peak promotional period for brands looking to cash in on the generosity inspired by a new lunar year.

Since 2012, when President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption started, conspicuous gifting of cash and expensive luxury goods to politically-connected colleagues and acquaintances has certainly become much less overt.

This said, gift-giving has always been an important element of China’s Confucian tradition, simultaneously part of a strategy to maintain harmonious relationships and a way to demarcate strata within a hierarchical society. In short, gifting is such an entrenched part of Chinese culture, in one form or another it will remain pervasive.

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In today’s China, February also means Valentine’s Day – an increasingly popular occasion for gifting in the Middle Kingdom, particularly with the country’s younger, urban, internationalized consumers. This makes Valentine’s Day an increasingly important event for luxury brands in China, looking to cater to this growing market.

It should come as no surprise that, in a country where digital payments have become virtually ubiquitous in the form of Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay, using these platforms to digitally send gifts (including digital versions of those famous red envelopes, or “hong bao”) have become commonplace. In 2017, WeChat users sent 46 billion red envelopes over the Chinese New Year holiday period, and are expected to send even more this year.

Making the transition to digital gifting even easier are the Mini Programs built by WeChat. First introduced a year ago by the platform – which currently boasts more than 900 million daily users ­– it used by brands for individual campaigns, limited edition sales events and even whole e-commerce operations.

The major advantage of Mini Programs is the way they work as an app-within-an-app so WeChat users can act on the messages being promoted by brands, to play a game or buy a product, without ever leaving the WeChat ecosystem.

One of the first international brands to embrace mini-programs for gifting was coffee conglomerate Starbucks. In February 2017, they launched a gifting platform on WeChat called “Say it With Starbucks”, which allowed WeChat users to digitally send Starbucks-branded gifts and products to friends and family. Within only seven weeks, 1.2 million gifts were sent using the program, driving recipients to physical Starbucks stores to redeem their gifts.

Image credit: Starbucks WeChat channel

“This is a great opportunity to further build new and authentic customer connections. We’re only in the very early stages of social gifting in China and the growth opportunity ahead is enormous,” Belinda Wong, China CEO of Starbucks, said.

In August, to coincide with another major gifting occasion, Qixi (often called “Chinese Valentine’s Day), Swarovski created a special line of jewellery. As part of its WeChat campaign, it allowed users to send digital versions of these pendants to their loved ones, containing hidden messages of love. These messages came in other voice or text forms and would be revealed once recipients unlocked the pieces with a password. An accompanying WeChat Mini Program allowed users to purchase these products, as well.

Image credit: Swarovski

Another luxury brand quick to playfully adapt digital gifting was Gucci. The Italian luxury brand gift-card Mini Program combines a photo editor with customizes Gucci stickers, with e-gift cards redeemable in store for small items like perfumes, wallets, candles and cups.

Image credit: Gucci 

Successful digital gifting Mini Programs, in other words, are fun, shareable, revenue enhancing and drive customers into brick and mortar stores – a gift that keeps on giving.

Cover image credit: Gucci