The year of co-branding clashes? Luckin and YH Tang both launch A Dream of Red Mansions collabs

Key takeaways:

  • Luckin Coffee and YH Tang both teased collabs with the classic novel, A Dream of Red Mansions on the same day.
  • Luckin was co-branding with the dance drama adaptation while YH Tang with the original.
  • As both the leading chains and their competitors try to produce cost-effective collabs, we might see more clashes as they opt for public domain IPs.

On 23 February, netizens took notice that both leading coffee chains Luckin Coffee and new-style tea brand YH Tang (益禾堂, sometimes translated as Yi He Tang) teased their A Dream of Red Mansions co-branded teas.

A Dream of Red Mansions (红楼梦, sometimes translated as Dream of the Red Chamber) is an 18th-century novel by Cao Xueqin (c. 1715 – c. 1763). Widely regarded as one of the greatest literary creations of China, the novel is one of the “Four Great Classical Novels” of Chinese literature. The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of a great family through intricate plotlines featuring a diverse cast. It is believed to be based on Cao’s own family and serves as “a memorial to the women he knew in his youth”. Many got to know the story through the renowned 1987 television adaptation, a classic in its own right.

Luckin the early bird?

However, Luckin Coffee’s partner was with neither the novel nor the TV series. The co-branding is with the smash hit Chinese-style dance drama / theatrical dance adaptation of the novel. The dance drama is known for its elaborate traditional Chinese-style costume and production design, as well as the dance and music itself.

It was co-produced by Jiangsu Center for the Performing Arts and Nanjing Chinese Orchestra. The production began its life in Nanjing, Jiangsu in 2021, before being quickly transferred to the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing and touring the country. It celebrated its 100th performance in Beijing last August, after winning the Lotus Award, the highest award for dance in China in May 2023. Every performance was sold out in seconds. Luckin’s collaboration comes at a pivotal moment, between the cast performing a segment on Bilibili’s New Year gala and the performance’s triumphant homecoming to Jiangsu to leverage its popularity.

Luckin’s collaboration comes at a pivotal moment to leverage its popularity

The collaboration includes a Biluochun green tea latte and a jasmine tea latte, made to symbolise the two principal female characters Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai, respectively. Luckin also released a video and photoshoot featuring the three dancers playing Lin, Xue and the protagonist Jia Baoyu.

On Weibo, the topic “Luckin collaboration with dance drama A Dream of Red Mansions” (#瑞幸咖啡联名舞剧红楼梦#) garnered a moderate 1.67 million views. On the lifestyle social platform Xiaohongshu (RED), the announcement post received over 6,000 likes. Many netizens on both platforms feel the collaboration was a little perfunctory as it did not include gifts and merch such as the usual exclusive cups, sleeves, paper bags and stickers. However, the main attraction of the co-branding was a prize draw for 15 free tickets for the Suzhou performances on 2 March.

YH Tang: second-mover advantage?

YH Tang, on the other hand, collaborated with Guo Tu Chuang Xin, the creative arm of the National Library. YH Tang based its campaign on the original novel, with artwork from the illustrated version of the book, by Qing period artist Sun Wen (1818 – 1904). YH Tang teased its collaboration about 6 hours later than Luckin’s on 23 February. However, as Luckin’s collaboration started 3 days after the teaser on 26 Feb and YH Tang’s was scheduled on 29 Feb, it was clear that YH Tang brought its campaign forward so as not to be left behind by Luckin’s.

However, YH Tang did the catchup in style. For the first teaser of its Red Mansions collab, YH Tang copied the Luckin teaser’s composition and lighting, with an over-the-shoulder shot of Jia Baoyu reading a book in his iconic red robe. However, YH Tang switched the Luckin dancer with its own costumed mascot sporting the robe. It also changed the text of the book to tease its own tea and release date while keeping Luckin’s slogan “邀您如梦”, (invites into the dream).

Netizens appreciate how YH Tang remained in good humour even when clashing with an industry goliath such as Luckin

The teaser received 309 likes on Xiaohongshu and 133 comments. Netizens appreciate how YH Tang remained in good (postmodern) humour even when clashing with an industry goliath such as Luckin. YH Tang doubled down with commenting on Luckin’s post with a quote from the novel: “I wouldn’t have come here if I knew he came as well”, poking fun at the unexpected clash.

YH Tang was launched in 2012 and has been on the offence with quick expansion. It has more than 7,000 branches as of January 2024 and has been aiming for 10,000 locations. Data from September showed that YH Tang had opened over 400 branches in a month at the time.

YH Tang has been experimenting with slight left-field partners with its co-branding campaigns, such as the yellow emojis by QQ, the messaging software by Tencent, the cult classic Chinese cartoon GG Bond, long-running soap opera Love Stories in the Countryside and Pop Team Epic, a Japanese manga and anime with a cult following. It is also known for its ironic postmodern humour, as manifested in this clash.

On Xiaohongshu, YH Tang received 1,357 likes for the post that revealed all gifts and merch, about a quarter of Luckin’s. The collection with its various designs earned much appreciation in the comment section.

The year of collab clashes?

In late January, NOWWA Coffee launched its collaboration with intangible cultural heritage artists in a tribute to the blue and white pottery. However, it was quickly pointed out that the packaging was uncanny with Chagee’s design, which was also once accused of copying Dior’s Toile De Jouy fabric-inspired bags. However, as Chagee’s packaging has been around for a few years, it was less a clash than a challenge from NOWWA.

As the Chinese New Year started, the first perceived clash happened just before the Luckin and YH Tang one. With the “Shang Chun Shan” meme which spread after the CNY gala performance, Chinese tea brand ALittleTea enjoyed customers customising their own green tea and naming it “Shang Chun Shan”. At the same time, Hey Tea released a “Springtime” tea with its art style and colour combination resembling the performance itself. Despite being seen as a clash only by netizens, ALittleTea’s Weibo post name-dropping the performance was swiftly deleted. The association between the Hey Tea campaign and the meme was entirely conjectured by netizens.

Relatively minor tea and coffee chains, or chains that work in a more affordable segment will look at cheaper alternatives like public domain IPs

The Luckin and YH Tang A Dream of Red Mansions clash, therefore, is the most coincidental with both parties going for a time-limited campaign based on the novel and its dance adaptation. This is reminiscent of the Detective Conan clash between Nayuki and Lelecha last year, both announced on 15 Novemeber, which felt more like a direct confrontation. As collaborations become an increasingly commonplace tactic for tea and coffee chains, relatively minor chains, or chains that work in a more affordable segment will look at cheaper alternatives like public domain IPs for their campaigns. YH Tang’s Red Mansions campaign is arguably an example of this.

On the other hand, major players such as Luckin Coffee, will have to put out more co-branding campaigns to keep the momentum. Minor collabs that feature less merch and gifts to save cost will become an attractive option, and its Red Mansions dance drama team-up is a step towards this direction. The clash then took place as both brands were trying to produce cost-effective ways to collaborate. As public domain and lower budget co-branding becomes more widespread, we might expect to see more clashes in the collab playfield. On the other hand, this could also pave way for a “Barbenheimer” moment for tea and coffee collabs.