Online influencer Palace Museum promotes traditional culture in new ways

By ZENG XIN / 07-04-2019 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Snow veils the Forbidden City, creating a poetic view of one of Beijing’s landmark attractions. Photo: CHINA DAILY


In recent years, the Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City, formerly the imperial palace in the Ming and Qing dynasties, has taken advantage of new media to enhance its communication power. Through product promotion and cultural communication, it has successfully built itself into a hypertraffic IP and embarked on the path of commercialization, serving as a model for the promotion of traditional culture in China.

As a localized concept in China, IP dates back to 2013. The term IP or intellectual property in the Chinese context refers to creative intellectual property that attracts wide attention, has huge impact and can be reproduced.


Cultural innovation
In the new media era, many cultural artworks are redesigned and reproduced, and the cultural origin is incorporated in the marketing strategy. Meanwhile, technology serves as a new carrier for aesthetics and culture. The culture of the Palace Museum reflects the characteristics of contemporary mass culture—typically a mixture of technology and consumer culture.

Since China transitioned to a market economy in the 1990s, the political role of the state has been weakened, and patriotism has changed into an energy in the cultural consciousness, which then evolved into consumption power driven by the commodity economy.

Consumption upgrading works together with growing demand for entertainment and aesthetics to boost the development of cultural products. Many design companies have joined the cultural industry to create new cultural IP and promote creative consumption. The Forbidden City is a successful example.

In terms of products, the Palace Museum complies with the trend of the “aesthetics of daily life” in the consumer society under the market economy. It develops ancient cultural relics into cultural and creative products, extending the experience and feeling of visiting the imperial palace.
Shan Jixiang, former director of the Palace Museum, was quoted as saying that “we are trying every possible way to encourage people to take home the culture of the Palace Museum.”
The promotion of cultural concepts weakens the commercial quality and enhances the cultural identity and significance of cultural and creative products.

In terms of promotion strategies, the Palace Museum has used new media to take advantage of the popularity of Qing dramas—TV dramas that focus on palace life during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911)—and elevate their IP.

Popular Qing dramas and national treasure TV shows are of great service to the promotion of the Palace Museum’s cultural creation. For example, Wang Jin and Qi Haonan, two of the antique clock restorers from the timepiece restoration team, quickly made a name for themselves in 2016 after appearing on the three-episode TV show Masters in the Forbidden City. Later, Wang held a book-signing event in the Hall of Clocks and Watches in the Forbidden City, attracting many fans with his craftsmanship and spirit.

Similarly, thanks to the remarkable popularity of Chinese Qing Dynasty drama series Story of Yanxi Palace, the site where the palace once stood has also become one of the most popular areas to “check in” at the Forbidden City.

In fact, the Yanxi Palace was originally constructed in the year 1420 during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). From then until the end of the Qing Dynasty, it was where many forgotten concubines lived and died.


New media
In the era of social media, “micro-communication” has penetrated into every part of people’s lives. The micro-communication strategy of the Palace Museum has turned out to be quite successful.

To start with, web pages, Weibo, WeChat, apps and other media have been combined in a matrix to create the Palace Museum’s super IP. On Sina Weibo alone, there are many accounts such as Palace Museum Taobao, Forbidden City Magazine and Palace Museum Press, each carrying different functions and purposes but jointly promoting the brand of the Palace Museum.

To be specific, Palace Museum Taobao contains rich and interwoven content, such as buyers’ show, museum information, product introductions, and history and culture.

There are also nine apps featuring Palace Museum information, games and tour guides. Each app has a clear independent function, but the central task is to spread the Palace Museum culture.
In addition, in response to the wide popularity of video sharing app Douyin, the Palace Museum has started to introduce and promote cultural relics and related products through vivid and interesting animation, contributing to the brand.

The Palace Museum’s communication style keeps up with trends, and it is characterized by light, lively and casual content interspersed with a large number of emojis, buzzwords and adorable images.

For example, it unveiled a marketing campaign featuring whimsical portraits of Chinese emperors and other historical figures striking modern-day poses in 2015. The once stoic emperors now flash “V” signs, wear sporty sunglasses or cutely cradle their smiling faces, which stirs controversy among the social media masses. Many have applauded the designs.

In this way, the Palace Museum accurately appeals to the young internet generation. Moreover, concubines, cultural relics and even cats in the Forbidden City are all potential additions to the IP.
Finally, the Palace Museum continues to attract attention and interaction with hot topics in society. IP creation is not a one-off mission, but a continuous effort. Taking advantage of various opportunities such as festivals and solar terms, hot topics are created, followed and guided on social media platforms. A social media matrix should be fully optimized to interact with audiences.


For example, celebrating the Spring Festival in the Forbidden City, the light show celebrating the Lantern Festival, the snow in the Forbidden City, and the sale of “Forbidden City Red” lipstick, all directly interact with the audience, gathering more fame and love for the imperial palace.


Online, offline combination
A super IP is more than an online influencer; it also accumulates popularity on social network platforms so as to develop an industry. With a combination of products and sales channels, an IP can cash in on its traffic. The products of the Palace Museum not only are diverse, but have a wide range of price, from ten yuan to tens of thousands, catering to consumers with different consumption capacities and demands, thus successfully realizing the transition from cultural communication to brand monetization.

The cultural brand of the Palace Museum not only involves a media matrix, offline products and regular interaction, but also extends into urban spaces. Corner Tower Cafe, located outside the Shenwumen of the Forbidden City, opened on Dec. 1, 2018. Its opening quickly made headlines and became a “check in” spot. Visitors now do not need to go inside the imperial palace to have a taste of the royal culture.

At the cafe, one can enjoy a cup of tea and experience a panoramic view of “A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains,” a masterpiece of landscape painting by Wang Ximeng of the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127) on wallpaper and ceiling drapery.

In sum, the IP development of the Palace Museum follows a path of product development, media matrix promotion, online and offline interaction, marketing promotion, traffic cash-in, and finally the integration of cultural creativity and various industries.

Both the cafe and the cultural and creative products are part of the trend of the integration of once-distant-and-mysterious palace culture with mass culture. The cultural phenomenon arising from the Palace Museum today demonstrates how tradition connects with modernity by combining classical aesthetic elements with the preferences, personalities and lifestyles of contemporary youth. It can also be seen as the contemporary youth’s realization of self-expression and entertainment through the popularization of the palace culture, in the end, creating a kind of leisure lifestyle with a Chinese culture connotation.


Brand vitality
Whether through brand building or product promotion, as an online influencer the Palace Museum is a successful example of traditional culture innovation. However, whether this super IP and its products can retain their popularity depends on continuous cultural innovation and product quality improvement.

The prevailing problem of mass consumer culture is the rigid application of cultural innovation and marketing strategies. Without digging into the essence of culture, the aesthetic quality will soon diminish in reproduction, thus making it difficult to truly appreciate a traditional culture element’s historical context.

Museums across the country are full of cultural and creative products, including USB flash drives, bookmarks, refrigerator magnets and key chains. Most of these products are different only in images, but the originality follows familiar patterns, which easily causes consumers’ aesthetic fatigue.

Therefore, we need to reflect on popular culture from a critical perspective, so as to avoid the meaningless copy and paste of cultural products. It is an urgent issue to improve consumer taste and the appreciation of traditional culture.

In addition to the Forbidden City super IP, many rich cultural resources around the country remain to be developed. In this light, IPs and social platforms need to strategize, including brand marketing, service upgrades, and the realization of in-depth, personalized and creative communication. The improvement of cultural brand value, coupled with the promotion of cultural elements in leisure products, will then be a guarantee of cultural creativity and vitality.


Zeng Xin is from the Institute of Journalism and Communication Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

​edited by YANG XUE