As brands in Asia rush to make emotional connections with hyper-digital savvy millennials, some embrace a return to cultural roots

Twenty-somethings in China have moved at lightning speed into a digital-first future, but now they’re hungering to connect with their nation’s complex past. The coolest domestic brands in food, fashion, and beauty are taking note.

As Chinese New Year approaches, international brands are trying (and often failing) to relate to Chinese millennials with their own limited-edition collections that borrow Chinese cultural motifs and stereotypes. But domestically, brands have been embarking on cross-generational collaborations that honor specific historical periods and ethnic groups, as well as updating ancient traditions and time-honored brands.

Cult beverage brand HeyTea had no sooner swept through China’s cafe scene with a buzzworthy twist on an ancient custom than it collaborated with Pechoin, a Shanghai skincare label that, had it been a mere year earlier, most millennials would have called outdated. Pechoin first debuted in the 1930s, and HeyTea’s creative team gave the iconic imagery of the decade a contemporary makeover via a series of quirky illustrations for a nostalgia-laden campaign on WeChat. For two days in October, customers could visit HeyTea’s “Cheese Bus” where they could buy a set of exclusive Pechoin products and sample new drink flavors.

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Palace Museum lipstick
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Shanghai-based Liushen, the maker of a mosquito-repelling Florida Water that earned its household name under the 120-year-old Jahwa cosmetics brand is one such example. In July 2018, Liushen teamed up with domestic alcopop label Rio and Vogue China to create a limited-edition bottled cocktail for a major e-commerce discount event. Meanwhile, in December 2018, The Palace Museum at the Forbidden City came out with its own highly anticipated set of lipsticks. And in January 2019, hip artisan coffee chain Seesaw Coffee in Shanghai hosted an offline event where two millennial university graduates shared their stories on what it was like to return to rural life in Bishan, a historical village attempting to make a comeback alongside China’s fast-developing urban communities. Attendees were invited to pair coffee with traditional snacks and learn how to make Huizhou-style mooncakes.

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Eath library

This trend is not unique to China—boutique skincare brand Eath Library in Seoul is winding the clock back a few millennia with a showroom that takes it cues from Korea’s ancient apothecaries. Both through interior design and upscale product offerings, Eath Library offers consumers the contemporary advancements that have made K-beauty so popular in the present, all while celebrating Korean herbal medicine traditions from the past.

The new label currently offers just six products, including a sunscreen, cleanser, and brightening toner, displayed among a smattering of modern and traditional wooden furniture and ceramics. Eath Library’s small lifestyle selection also caters to its heritage-preserving philosophy, and includes a small Soban, or tea tray, that was commonly used for ceremonies during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897).

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Eath Library

The rising popularity of these brands is reflective of a wider phenomenon in Asia, one that has millennials and gen Z consumers curious about their nation’s cultural heritage. These consumer groups, according to the 2017 China Cultural Industry Index, exhibit the highest levels of cultural consumption as China’s “rising position on the global stage has led to an increase in pride and a newfound preference for Chinese cultural products that reflect China’s history and heritage,” as reported by Resonance Digital in October 2018.

Part of this no doubt stems from innovative rebranding efforts from heritage labels like Pechoin in China. It’s also a seemingly inevitable outcome of an era defined by rapid economic development and a digital landscape that has completely transformed the day-to-day lives of young consumers, leaving them yearning for deeper, more authentic meaning. Many are now exploring their own cultural identity to fill the gap.