Chinese buyers presently snap up around a third of the world’s luxury goods, which makes China an appealing market for luxury brands as well as an influential one. But attempts by the luxury industry to cater to Chinese consumer tastes have often misfired. In recent months there have been a number of culturally insensitive mistakes. So why are brands getting it so wrong?
The last 12 months have seen a number of blunders by foreign luxury brands active in China. Burberry’s campaign for Chinese New Year creeped people out. The most heinous effort by far was Dolce and Gabbana’s PR disaster. The brand initially put out a crass ad which saw Chinese actors trying to eat spaghetti with chopsticks, later compounding the problem by making offensive messages on the brand’s own social media. The ad may have been forgiven but the comments certainly won’t be.
It’s really common for brands to attempt to lazily incorporate what they see as Chinese elements into designs in order to win over Chinese audiences.
Slapping a dragon on underwear isn’t enough to connect with young Chinese buyers, as Victoria’s Secret found to its cost. Burberry and Dior have made similar design miscalculations.
Luxury Brands also make the frequent mistake of failing to reflect the China that Chinese people are proud of. Dolce and Gabbana can add this to their long list of errors. Chinese citizens – and the government – are immensely proud of their modern, ambitious society.
But foreign brands often pick up on the things they aren’t as proud of: grotty urban areas, impoverished locals and outdated cultural elements such as red lanterns.
The nostalgia felt by Western luxury brands just isn’t shared by modern Chinese people. It’s also a sign of a deeper failure to understand Chinese tastes and mindsets.
Foreign brands can and do get it right in China but they really need to pay attention to modern China and the way it sees itself. Good collaborations are key to cultural understanding. By partnering with local creators, brands are better able to capture the zeitgeist and get a fresh, relevant take on their brand.
Good partnerships can also help you avoid cultural faux-pas. Dolce and Gabbana may have been able to avoid the mistakes it made had they had the right local relationships in place to review the messages in their campaign before it went out.
Social media pressure
Brands have always made errors and miscalculated how they pitch their ads; what’s different now is perhaps how these errors are received and spread. China’s online landscape is peculiarly well-geared towards consumer outrage. There’s a real orientation towards online discussion of brands and product, with social eCommerce opportunities stitched in. Consumers can and do discuss brands and their activities with gusto.
And brands actively participate in this online chat, for better or worse. Dolce and Gabbana contributed to their own problems by making unwise comments in the public space of Instagram.
This means that not only are a brand’s mistakes visible to the world, they’re also easy to share and discuss. Often this discussion spreads very quickly. So even though Instagram is not available to audiences within China, the diaspora caught Dolce and Gabbana’s comments on the platform and made sure they were circulated on social media platforms at home.
One curious feature of China’s moral outrage is that state-owned media will often jump on the bandwagon when cultural outrage kicks off. Xenophobia is often a politically expedient position for China’s authorities to adopt and state-owned media helped fuel some of these backlashes.
The luxury industry is already on thin ice in China. Anti-corruption drives and bans on luxury advertising aimed at reducing anger about inequality make it clear foreign luxury brands are being closely monitored by the authorities.
Some commentators have pointed out the rank hypocrisy of complaining about the behaviour of foreign brands when domestic ones are even less sensitive. A 2016 ad for laundry powder showed a black man being washed until he emerged as a fair-skinned Chinese man. Whilst foreign brands are forced to grovel in apology, no such apologies are forthcoming from domestic ones.
Hysterical online outrage is by no means a feature that’s unique to China. The Twitter townspeople of the West are just as likely to grab their pitchforks if a brand gets it wrong. Pepsi, Victoria’s Secret and Avon all misread the zeitgeist in recent times and were pilloried for it.
There’s little excuse for many of the errors brands are making in China at the moment. The luxury industry is enjoying a sales bonanza in this market, yet the litany of mistakes brands are making show how little they truly understand their Chinese customers.
Brands that misunderstand their audience so completely will find themselves excluded very speedily as China’s online critics quickly rally their indignation.