Lion vs. Cat: Suning and Hunan Satellite TV Team Up to Challenge Alibaba’s Singles’ Day Entertainment Gala

Taylor Swift’s grand finale on Alibaba’s Singles’ Day show.

Alibaba began the transformation of the November 11 Singles’ Day “holiday” into the world’s biggest shopping event back in 2009, but it wasn’t until 2015 that it started using entertainment to hype up consumer sentiment in a big way. Its star-studded, televised galas have since become a signature part of Singles’ Day, drawing big names from around the world. Previous years have featured Nicole Kidman, Kobe Bryant, Daniel Craig, and Mariah Carey, while this year brought Taylor Swift to Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz Arena, where she performed her hits “Lover,” “Me!” and “You Need to Calm Down” as the finale of the four-hour gala.

For 2019, the e-commerce and bricks-and-mortar retailer Suning launched its own equally lengthy extravaganza, partnering with the entertainment powerhouse Hunan Satellite TV to produce a broadcast in direct competition with Alibaba’s show, which aired live on Zhejiang Satellite TV and Dragon TV, while also streaming on Alibaba-owned streaming platform Youku. Interestingly, the competition comes even though Suning is partly owned by Alibaba. 

Alibaba’s show is officially hosted by its B2C platform Tmall. In Chinese, Tmall is Tian Mao, or “Heavenly Cat” (天猫) and its show on the eve of Singles’ Day is known as “Cat Night” (猫晚). Suning, meanwhile, has a cartoon lion as its mascot, giving rise to the term “Lion Night” (狮晚) for its entertainment gala. 

While Alibaba had the global star power of Swift and other overseas artists, Suning focused on popular domestic acts. It featured two of China’s hottest celebrities of the moment, Wang Yibo and Xiao Zhan, former boy-band members who played the leading roles on Tencent Video’s hit summer series “The Untamed” (陈情令). Although the series aired its finale in August, its popularity has not flagged, thanks to Tencent’s savvy marketing of the show’s music and its stars across various platforms, and both Wang and Xiao have been in high demand as ambassadors for domestic and global brands. Other heavyweight musical performers included Kris Wu, Jolin Tsai and Rocket Girls 101, the 11-member girl group formed by Tencent through the 2018 competition show “Produce 101” ( 创造101) on Tencent Video.  

Alibaba also drew Chinese stars, among them Jackson Yee, another boy-band veteran who has made a successful turn to acting, most notably in this summer’s critically acclaimed “The Longest Day in Chang’An” (长安十二时辰), produced by Youku. Yee debuted a new song, following up on his performances at Tmall’s Singles’ Day launch show on October 21. Also drawing on the success of its Youku programming, Alibaba’s Singles’ Day show featured a “battle”-style performance with top teams that from thei hit reality competition “Street Dance of China” (这!就是街舞) facing off against U.S.-based dance crew Kinjaz and New Zealand’s Royal Family.

However, brand visibility on the Tmall gala was far more muted than in Alibaba’s October 20 launch show, where the performances were clearly branded. On the Singles’ Day gala itself, apart from the title sponsor, furniture maker Kuka, most brands were featured via small banner ads at the bottom of the screen or via short segments and ad clips between performances. Only Japanese actress-singer Hana Kanazawa’s performance had a clear brand presence, with ten Sanrio characters such as Hello Kitty and My Melody dancing onstage. Brands were even less visible on Suning’s show, which saw only title sponsor Huawei’s Mate30 phone take a prominent role in the broadcast. 

The Tmall gala drew a bigger audience for its combined broadcasts, but Suning’s show was the top rated individual broadcast of the night. And while Alibaba had a clear sales advantage as the larger e-commerce platform, generating a record $38.4 billion this year, Suning was able to boast a huge increase in sales, which were reportedly up 86% over 2018.