China Viral: SOHO China Monkey Returns From Space, Calls Nation ‘Copycat Empire’


Albert, killed during a 1948 experimental space mission launched by the United States, was not the first money in space. Or so contends a unique new viral promotion in China by SOHO China, one of the nation’s largest real estate development enterprises.

“Abo,” SOHO’s campaign tells us, was sent into space by China in 1946. In this retelling, he returned to earth — a little changed. He spent time bonding, it seems, with some aliens and has returned to Earth to tell China it is a creative failure, a “copycat empire” that is “burying alive the creative spirit of a billion citizens.”

Yes, this is a marketing campaign for a Chinese brand. A creative one — and a controversial one, with a debate raging on social media about what Time Out Beijing called “a crazy PR stunt.”

“Of course some of the issues that Abo talks about sail very close to the wind,” Ogilvy & Mather China Chief Creative Officer Graham Fink told brandchannel. The intention is not to offend people but just to make them think and to awaken their creative passion.”[more]

Ogilvy & Mather China spearheaded the Abo campaign for Soho, releasing an initial teaser trailer and the final “Abo interview” (above) which features the standout Galaxy SOHO building in Beijing. The two viral videos promoted a subsequent online panel discussion about “whether or not China has creativity” and where it needs to do to go from “making” to “reading.” The panel featured SOHO China CEO Zhang Xin and Chairman Pan Shiyi, real estate developer Ren Zhiqiang, author Jiang Fangzhou and music producer Gao Xiaosong.

“Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi, the two founders of SOHO China, feel very passionate about creativity in China, and using the monkey Abo was the perfect way to get across their point of view,” said Fink. He said the primary goal of the campaign was boost awareness of the Soho China brand and as a launch platform for Beijing’s Zaha Hadid-designed Galaxy Soho building. But also, he aded, “to provoke people into a discussion about progressive creativity.”

It certainly seemed to provoke viewers. Viewed over 230,000 times, the 30 minute panel discussion boasts 146 pages of user comments, not all of them positive.

“We knew the campaign would polarize people but that is the objective,” Find told us. “Doing new things or breaking the mold will always upset some people. The Galaxy SOHO is not a building that everyone likes, but neither was the Eiffel Tower in Paris when it was erected. In fact, the French hated it. Only years later did it become the symbol for Paris.” Fink predicts the Galaxy SOHO will grow into its iconography.

SOHO China’s dig on China’s perceived lack of creativity comes as a report from Millward Brown on China’s top 50 brands found an overall lack of innovation. The need for Chinese brands to display a little creativity is so dire that Hainan Airlines saw its brand valuation increase 23 percent in part simply because it began offering its passengers warm bread.

Overall, it’s a gutsy move on the brand’s part to poke the nation in the eye with a stick. While the humor of a talking monkey takes the edge off, it is still a great deal more upfront in its confrontation than, say, the passive implication of a dour, uncreative nation inherent in Apple’s iconic “Think Different” campaign.

Of course, courting controversy is not the same as innovating. But in China’s current branding environment, it may be a good start. As Chinese consumers begin to demand a more creative approach to services and products, just shaking the snow globe may get enough attention to open an opportunity to deliver a unique, innovative brand promise.

“I think that people enjoy a good story whether it’s true or not,” said Fink. “After all, we’re all told fairy tales when we were young.”