Adults giving red envelopes with monetary gifts to kids during Chinese New Year is a common tradition. But in recent years, for gifting friends and colleagues, the tradition has migrated onto China’s super-app, WeChat. This behavioral change created an opportunity for brand exposure and engagement. 

In 2021, the Year of the Ox, WeChat’s customizable digital red envelopes have become the new social currency among China’s digital-focused consumers, and a nascent advertising space for brands. Launched in January of 2019, the red envelope cover was originally developed for business accounts, but it has been largely democratized in terms of cost and access. Available customized covers used to cost companies 10 yuan ($1.54) to send, but this year, that was lowered to one yuan ($0.15) and the feature became available to the public. 

Over Chinese New Year earlier this month, Western brands including Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Versace, Dunhill and De Beers jumped onto the marketing trend. Participating brands can design their cover slogan, cover story, brand logo and inside pattern to connect with giftees throughout the process of opening a digital red envelope. From February 11-16, WeChat saw the creation of 30 million unique covers in total, and every user owned 7.37 covers on average, according to an official statement. Users of WeChat and its payment system grew to more than 1 billion in 2020.

“WeChat really banked on digital red envelope covers this year,” said Ada Luo, regional account director at U.K.-based marketing agency Croud. “It’s evidently invested more manpower and resources in the feature, and it’s recently launched a series of capabilities. Brands now have the ability to link covers to their official accounts and also to their Mini Programs.” A sub-application within WeChat, Mini Programs commonly serve as brands’ local e-commerce stores.

Within the luxury fashion industry, British luxury house Burberry was among brands that aimed to make an impact with its red envelope covers and designs. In two batches, the brand released a total of nine covers that include four that were illustrated by local Chinese illustrators and graphic designers, three that feature a brand mascot resembling this year’s Chinese zodiac sign called ‘Oxberry,’ and two featuring its Chinese brand ambassadors, Zhou Dongyu and Song Weilong. The local artists were scouted through the brand’s ongoing #BurberryGeneration program, a content series that launched in China in late 2020.

Italian luxury brand Gucci also launched its red envelope covers in two batches before the New Year. What’s different from Burberry’s is that Gucci’s covers have a product tie-in, with its Doraemon X Gucci capsule collection for Chinese New Year: In the first batch, users had to reserve spots by registering as members of the brand’s Mini Program store, which featured the capsule, then they could retrieve their covers after three days. According to the brand, 1.1 million covers were claimed in total. Other brands could learn from Gucci’s tactic as “it was killing two birds with one stone,” Luo said. 

For first-timers like Galeries Lafayette China, the red envelope activation was a test run for the future. “The original goal was to increase our brand awareness and to let consumers know that [we] also have a WeChat Mini Program, since July 2020,” said Waël Benkerrour, chief digital officer of Galeries Lafayette China. 

The French luxury retailer wanted to keep it simple the first time around: To avoid extra costs, it designed its cover internally and only invested in sponsoring a few thousand covers. “We’ll invest more time and resources next year, after having this year’s good results,” said Benkerrour, who did not disclose specific engagement numbers. 

“Some customers complained about the limited quantity, but on the other side, it’s a proof of success,” he said.