⟵  back to blog

“Sang”: The trend of negative messages on Weibo & WeChat

In May, a pop-up tea store named Sang Cha (丧茶), roughly translated into ‘depressed tea’, opened in Shanghai for four days. This store was instantly a huge topic filling my WeChat moments and Weibo feed. Young people shared photos and jokes about the quirky concept which says mean things to their customers like…

You’re already so fat. Refraining from one cup of milk tea won’t make any difference

If this already sounds absurd, more controversy is offered on their menu which lists…

Black tea called “My ex-boyfriend is better off leaving me”.
Green tea called “Overtime never ends, but promotion never comes”.
Oolong tea named “Think you have nothing? No, you have your mental issues”.

You might be left wondering what has happened to the Chinese youth? A revelry for self-harming? I’ll try to help you make sense of Sang Cha by taking a look into how it came into being.

The Origin of Sang Cha

Long before this store was created Sang Cha started as joke that went around on Weibo. Created by young people who got upset waiting in line for hours to take a sip of the phenomenally popular Hey Tea (喜茶). This popular chain of tea restaurants has a Chinese name that translates into “Happy Tea”-pretty much what the tea is usually associated with: relaxing and joyful feelings.

But its depressing opponent Sang Cha seems to be even more celebrated. Youth on the internet liked and spread the idea of Sang Cha, and many of them participated in amplifying the depressing concept of the Sang Cha shop. They photoshopped pictures to look like real products. Sad shop logos, dispirited brand mascots, and sarcastic product names were created by netizens. These pictures were so convincing they even fooled one news website to write an article about the popular new “store”.

The concept of Sang Cha kept heating up to a degree that Netease and Eleme collaborated to borrow the Sang Cha concept and opened a real store for it. The response was phenomenal. The average waiting time outside was two hours, and even the limit of two cups per person couldn’t prevent the store from selling out early in the afternoon.

This is just one case of the depressing messages winning the market. It has become a proven method of attracting attention, and the Chinese youth gives the negative emotions a term Sang (丧), to describe these dispiriting and self-mocking messages. Though the term is quite new, the concept is actually not too hard to grasp. Let’s take a look at some icons that the young people identify as Sang. You’ll probably find the message quite familiar.

3 icons to help you understand Sang

The young people use many images to speak for their Sang emotions. We selected three icons that best demonstrate the dispirit yet humorous message of Sang.

1. Ji Chunsheng

The character comes from a 1993 sitcom that most of the 90s watched repeatedly with their family in their childhood. Ji Chunsheng was supposed to educate the youth how not to be when they grow up. But ten years later, the youth grow up and realize that the languid pose of sitting into a sofa of Ji Chunsheng is exactly how they end up wasting away their life.

2. Bojack Horseman

Dozens of screenshots and quotes have been posted on Weibo and WeChat. Netizens find the characters relatable and the sentiments expressed witty and depressing.

3. The Pickled Fish Meme

Hopefully these three icons might give you a better feeling of Sang.

Two common themes of Sang

1. Unvarnished

The three icons face the negative side of life as it is. The young generation have grown very tired of the idealized and moralized messages that only talks about the positive side of life. So they choose to talk honestly about the downside of reality.

2. Self-mocking

Though negative, the Sang messages does not aim to attack anyone. Sang stories talk about one’s own life experience, and the young feels related to the message because similar situation happens to them. And there’s always a humorous flavor to make the message less serious.

As you see, though Sang is a new term, it has elements that are similar to black humor. What might be hard to grasp are how these negative messages can be used in marketing. Why are people willing to line up and buy something that makes fun of the downside of their life? Where is the line between being funny and embarrassing your audience?

How can Sang be used in marketing?

Before we look at how one brand used Sang messages to engage users, lets look at why Sang became well-received in the Chinese market.

Changing Perception

With massive information on the internet, young people nowadays know too well that nothing is as perfect as seen in the advertisement. On the contrary, they have grown tired to see brands awkwardly trying to explain away their mistake, fake and failed and get teased. The young generation now prefers to see brands being honest that life is not always perfect, and a brand is not omnipotent. Adding Sang to your marketing message will make your brand seem more easy going to the younger generation.

Being Bold and Unique

Followers are bombarded by messages, attention spans are falling and being different is essential to attract attention.

Speak the User’s Language

Sang messages speak to the anxiety of the younger living in 1st tier cities. Using Sang shows that you are listening, that you understand your users and speak their language.

Case Study: UCC coffee

In this campaign, the Japanese coffee brand promoted their black coffee beverage for adult by calling for submission of some Sang but witty sentences. They play on the concept of black, which can also mean to say negative things in the Chinese youth language.

If you think,
You are as exhausted as a dog
You really get it wrong.
Dogs are not exhausted as you.

This message really resonated with over stressed graduates and white collar workers.

The ancient sage says that one should not bend down for 5 liters of rice
Which is exactly true
Only 1 liters should make you bend down gratefully already

Explanation: 5 liters of rice means the money to make a living. To say not to bend down for the rice is a traditional Chinese way of saying “do not comprise your pride and principle for money”. But in reality we know, we must make compromises to survive.

No one can make you give up on your dream
You will give it up by yourself after giving it a thought.
Fools in this world might not always be stupid
But they all feel that they are smart

Explanation: reminds you of people around you that are annoyingly overconfident, perhaps a co-worker or friend.

These messages are very relatable to young city dwellers and use simple, everyday familiar language.

The twist…

How do we use Sang, but avoid offending users?

The trick is to talk about being Sang but not to trigger despair, anxiety or anger.

The key is, to add a twist to make the negativity a joke.

In the UCC coffee case, the sayings always start with a commonly known saying, and then finish with a dark twist.

So… What about the Coffee Itself?

One smart strategy that we learn from the UCC black coffee campaign is that no message posted talks about the coffee itself.

In fact, it’s always better to separate the Sang message from your brand message. Don’t use the Sang message to sell your product, this will undermine the sentiment.

It’s also risky to put the negative message too close to your brand image. A good brand image is one that listens to the users and knows how Sang they feel, but not one that is Sang by itself.

Let the Sang message stand alone.


Hopefully you learned something from the above case study, here are the dos and don’ts:

  • Talk about real-life scenes that your users found disappointing;
  • Use a twist to create a joke and avoid offending your users;
  • Don’t exaggerate on the negativity. Sang messages mean to take the reality as it is, but not to escalate your user’s negative feelings.
  • Separate the Sang message from your brand image. Don’t talk about Sang and your product at the same time.

Have any thoughts on the use of Sang? Seen other great examples of brands using Sang? Leave us a comment…

⟵  back to blog