Brand Collaborations and Cultural Appreciation: The View from TONG

Brand collaborations in China stir up a level of excitement unparalleled in many other markets. The regularity with which consumers are exposed to new, exciting crossovers is also much greater. Identifying trends among the vast array of collaborations to be found in China is crucial to understanding how brands can perfect this practice and identify a partner and strategy that suits their brand persona. The answer largely lies in having the confidence to alter your brand identity in a daring yet feasible manner, appealing to widespread sentiments and nostalgia, and acknowledging the creativity and talent that already exists in the market. 

One reason for the popularity achieved by so many collaborations in the Chinese market might be rooted further back in history than most would assume. Ideas around “ownership” and “originality” in Chinese culture are generally a lot more fluid than those in the West. Historically, art collectors would imprint valuable works with their personal name stamps, leaving their own mark on the piece. Over time, drawings and paintings would acquire several stamps from various collectors, in great contrast to the Western orthodoxy of preserving an untainted original. If an art collector were to put their personal signature on a Picasso, all hell would break loose in the art world.

Fast-forward to recent decades and this fluid notion of originality manifested itself in the trend of shanzhai. Literally meaning “mountain stronghold”, the term denotes “fake” goods that proliferated as China became the factory of the world from the 1980’s onwards. In a culture with less established notions of intellectual property, at least until recently, it was the playfulness and subversion inherent in products that did the job, but weren’t quite the original, that appealed to consumers in a developing market – as well as the lower cost, of course. This celebration of iterations of brands and products surely lives on in the playfulness of a successful brand collaboration.

Luxury Nostalgia

The young, luxury Chinese fragrance brand Scent Library has a minimalist aesthetic with stripped-back stores that attract millennial consumers seeking an original array of scents. In June 2019 Scent Library collaborated with the iconic Chinese sweet brand White Rabbit, essentially the boiled sweet version of Mini Milks, hard white candies that turn chewy when placed in the mouth. Scent Library worked on a fragrance and shower cream that evoked the smells and flavours of the sweets, exciting maturing consumers who wished to revisit childhood memories through an act of tasteful consumption.

Identifying the potential in the retro designs of White Rabbit for aesthetically appealing branding that speaks to a range of demographics was a great way to increase conversations around the brand collaboration. While this was two domestic brands working together, a young brand leveraging the nostalgia associated with an older one has parallels with international brands smartly identifying cultural icons to build brand equity in the market.

Luxury Heritage Meets Emerging Youth

Last winter Moncler collaborated with the young but highly established Chinese streetwear designer Dingyun Zhang. Zhang studied at Central Saint Martins before working at Yeezy.  We’ve learned from our own insights at TONG that as snow sports have gained popularity in China, in light of government drives and the Beijing Winter Olympics, streetwear has permeated styles on the slopes much more than functional looks in the West. Chinese skiers certainly take a lot more inspiration from snowboarding fashion than the average European skier.

Identifying this trend, Moncler worked with an inspiring homegrown talent from the streetwear space to help them create an exciting iteration of the refined luxury winter wear for which they are renowned. This collab allows Chinese consumers to champion domestic design while feeling part of a global community, flaunting the same luxury brands as skiers across the globe do. Many collaborations have allowed for similar practices, such as Chinese brand Peace Bird collaborating with former Moncler designer Fabio Del Bianco.

The Wonderful and the Wacky

In 2020, KFC coffee collaborated with domestic bug-repellent maker Liushen, whose hualushui “flower drop water” is used to ward off mosquitos. The campaign saw the launch of a coffee that had the scent of the water, and a bug spray that smelt like coffee. Hualushui is a trademark scent of Chinese summertime but it’s also a highly functional, not very sexy brand, like Vaseline or Palmer’s Cocoa Butter. The collaboration was a master move on both sides: it showed a traditional brand’s willingness to break out of its mould, while KFC showed its ability to tap into domestic seasonal trends while executing a left-field campaign that would get consumers talking.

It’s clear that in order to speak to Chinese consumers, luxury brands must show a willingness to engage with what already defines their tastes. This all starts with cultural insights and market intelligence. A deep understanding of a society and market allows brands to identify how they can develop a fresh iteration of what they have to offer, fusing local trends with core brand components.


TONG is a cross-cultural agency closing the gap between brands and people in and out of China from their offices in London and Shanghai. To find out more, please visit