Many are familiar with the campus origin story of the world’s biggest shopping event, Alibaba’s Singles’ Day, an online shopathon that launched in 2009 and last year saw $25 billion in sales on the e-commerce giant’s platforms. It seems a popular, slender snack food also played a role.
In the early 1990s, accounts go, a bunch of students at Nanjing University decided to honor their single status on Nov. 11, for the many ones in the date, and since the numerals look like sticks. In China, guanggun or “bare branches,” refers to men who remain single, a term made more commonplace by the skewed sex ratios that resulted from the one-child policy 40 years ago.
In 2009, Elaine Hu was part of the marketing team figuring out how to promote Alibaba’s business-to-consumer platform, Taobao Mall, founded in a case of unfortunate timing in April 2008, as the world was in a global recession. Under the leadership of Daniel Zhang, now Alibaba CEO, the group was brainstorming possible dates for a shopping event in November, a relatively quiet retail period at the time, apart from shopping for winter coats.
“We were eating Pocky, a chocolate cookie stick, and one colleague said it’s called ‘guanggun food’ in Korea,” Hu, now general manager at Tmall World, Alibaba’s platform for overseas Chinese, told Quartz. (Taobao Mall was later renamed Tmall.)
In fact, Pocky originated in Japan, but it’s similar to Pepero, a snack made by Lotte that was being gifted on 11/11 among high school friends in South Korea going back to the 1990s. Sales of the snack would soar ahead of the date. But rather than connoting singleness, in Korea they were supposedly a symbol of a wish to be tall and thin (some are skeptical of Pepero Day’s origins).
It isn’t entirely clear whether the team was in fact eating Pocky, or its South Korean cousin Pepero, made by South Korean conglomerate Lotte. Regardless, it seems the snack-inspired conversation around “bare branch” behaviors, and singleness helped the team settle on pleasing symmetry of 11/11 as the date to which to attach a new shopping festival that would offer aggressive discounts aimed at young, single shoppers.