What we’ve learned from our 2023 ‘Lunar New Year’ campaign
Bernadette Cochonat, Head of International Sales and Partnerships at Unite Students, explores the significance of New Year celebrations to students from both China and other south-east Asian countries that celebrate the festival, some of the challenges around creating a New Year campaign that works for everyone, and what we’ve learned for 2024’s ‘Year of the Dragon’ campaign.
Chinese students are not just the largest international student group – they make up more than 1 in 20 of the UK’s entire student population. According to a 2020 report by Savills, they’re also 124% more likely to live in purpose-built student accommodation than domestic students, and approximately 20% of the students who live in a Unite Students building is from China.
With student numbers growing, so too has awareness of Chinese culture and the needs of Chinese students in the UK higher education sector – it’s common for universities and accommodation providers to celebrate Chinese New Year in some way. As the most important festival of the year in China, recognising its significance can both make Chinese students feel welcome and give them the opportunity to share their culture with their peers of other nationalities.
But the festival to celebrate the New Year is actually celebrated by many other countries in south-east Asia – among them Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, whose UK student numbers are slated to increase substantially in the coming years. So, while our student population from China is far larger than from any other south-east Asian countries, inclusion is important, and the New Year festival offers an opportunity to recognise their cultures and give them this same chance to celebrate with a wider community.
Adapting to student feedback
Each year, we’ve aimed to make our campaigns more inclusive and authentic, learning from student feedback to improve for the next year.
Part of our 2021 New Year campaign included an opportunity for students to receive £188 cashback, a lucky number in China, if they booked with us for the next year. With collateral mostly being written in Chinese and promoted on Chinese social media platforms Weibo and WeChat, this was squarely aimed at Chinese students.
It received positive feedback, but students of other nationalities expressed their disappointment that they weren’t easily able to take part in the campaign. So for 2022, we widened our reach with multilingual collateral across the board – and 3 in 10 students who took up the offer that year were of other nationalities.
However, some students from Asian countries which celebrate the New Year felt that referring to the festival as ‘Chinese New Year’ was exclusionary, so in 2023’s campaign we took a different path with the name of the campaign. As the festival is based around the lunar calendar, we adopted the name of ‘Lunar New Year’ as a more inclusive alternative.
What’s in a name?
In terms of engagement, the 2023 ‘Lunar New Year’ campaign saw an overall increase in students booking, and significantly higher participation from non-Chinese students than previous years. But a small number of Chinese students expressed concerns on social media and to our frontline teams that this was inappropriate, given that the festival originated in China 3,500 years ago.
This is in line with a wider trend seen on social media in 2023; a number of brands and the British Museum were criticised this year for describing the festival as ‘Lunar New Year’. In China, President Xi Jinping has advocated for the protection and global promotion of Chinese cultural heritage around the world, and Chinese students may be keen to defend their culture in light of geopolitical tensions between China and the West.
But other Asian communities have also been keen to highlight their own cultures and put right the misconception that only China celebrates its New Year at this point in the lunar calendar. Danielle, a singer, influencer and member of the South Korean girl group NewJeans, put out an apology after there was a fan backlash to her referring to the festival as ‘Chinese New Year’ on social media.
While neither ‘Chinese New Year’ or ‘Lunar New Year’ is technically wrong, there are sensitivities to manage, and what we’ve learned thanks to our students is that choosing one or the other can be seen as supporting one group of students to the exclusion of another. One way to avoid being caught in this debate and to prevent reputation damage is to adopt a neutral descriptor, whether that’s calling it Spring Festival, or referring to it by the name of the zodiac animal.
We took the latter approach – quickly changing our collateral to wish students and other stakeholders a ‘Happy Year of the Rabbit’. Adopting a neutral name helped to make the campaign a success overall.
Planning for 2024’s Year of the Dragon campaign
We’re already starting to think about next year’s festivities so that we can make 2024’s campaign the best ever.
Collaborating with students is an important part of how we’re approaching this. More Chinese resident ambassadors have been recruited in our buildings to support authentic events in our buildings, and we’re also working with some of our Chinese students as content creators on student-facing platforms, helping us to use the right language and tone of voice to engage students.
Our work with a Chinese digital marketing agency and investment in ‘social listening’ activity allowed us to pick up several comments on social media about the ‘Lunar New Year’ campaign, allowing us to rapidly respond in updating our collateral – so we’re working more closely with them and investing more in this work to make sure we meet student needs in future.
We’re also making efforts to raise awareness of important New Year traditions and nuances across our organisation; for example, while red is the most important colour for decorations, clothing and gifts, red text must be avoided at all costs, as it is typically only found on gravestones. This includes countering common misconceptions, such as fortune cookies being an authentic part of Chinese culture: while their origin is unclear, they are thought to originate from Japan, and were popularised by Chinese restaurants in the United States.
This work builds on our existing Chinese cultural awareness programme, which launched in 2019. This consists of two-hour workshops, delivered in-house, which train our teams on Chinese culture, Chinese student needs, how Chinese students engage with services, and examples of what can go wrong when there is a cultural barrier. This has been delivered on over 100 occasions to internal audiences as well as a further 20 presentations to university partners, and we’re currently developing a similar programme around Indian culture.
It’s a joy to celebrate a festival with a history that spans more than three millennia, but also that is celebrated by so many people worldwide. Those students who observe the festival may be a long way from home and from their family’s celebrations – so we want to make sure that they have the best experience they can, sharing those festivities in an authentic and respectful way in their home away from home.
If you’d like a Chinese cultural awareness workshop to be delivered at your institution, please get in touch with Bernadette at email@example.com.