How Cultural Insensitivity is Plaguing Luxury Brands in China and Here at Home

How Cultural Insensitivity is Plaguing Luxury Brands in China and Here at Home

Chinese buyers currently 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 consumers’ tastes have often misfired. Recently, there have been a number of culturally insensitive mistakes. Why are brands getting it so wrong?

The last little while has seen a number of blunders by foreign luxury brands active in China. Burberry’s campaign for Chinese New Year creeped people out. The worst culprit was Dolce and Gabbana’s PR disaster. The brand initially put out a crass ad showing Chinese actors trying to eat spaghetti with chopsticks, then later compounded the problem by making offensive messages on the brand’s own social media. The ad may have been forgiven, but the comments will linger for a long time.

It’s unfortunately all too common for brands to lazily incorporate what they see as Chinese elements into design in attempts to win over Chinese audiences.

Slapping a dragon on underwear isn’t enough to connect with young Chinese buyers, as Victoria’s Secret discovered to its dismay. 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.

RELATED: Cultural Sensitivity: How to Market Your Brand to Other Cultures

But foreign brands often pick up on the things they aren’t as proud of: grotty urban areas, impoverished locals, and outdated and stereotypical cultural elements like red lanterns.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 must 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 brands avoid cultural faux pas. Dolce and Gabbana could have avoided their mistakes if they’d had the right local relationships in place to review the campaign messages before they went out.

The US gets it wrong, too

Here at home, even local brands often fail to take cultural sensitivity into account in their branding, goods, and advertising. In 2018, the Katy Perry brand was criticized for creating shoes that evoked blackface, and quickly removed the items after backlash from the public.

Fashion juggernaut Gucci released a black wool balaclava with a cut-out mouth and exaggerated red lips. Prada’s NYC sore displayed items reflecting blackface imagery, resembling black monkeys with large, red lips–once again showing cultural insensitivity at a time when brands should be much more in tune with racial sensitivity and “woke” culture.

Social media pressure

Brands have always made errors and miscalculated how they pitch their ads. What’s different now is 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 products, with social eCommerce opportunities stitched in. Consumers can and do discuss brands and their activities with much enthusiasm.

For better or worse, brands also actively participate in this online chat. Dolce and Gabbana added to their problems by making unwise comments in the public space of Instagram.

This means not only are a brand’s mistakes visible to the world, they’re also easy to share and discuss. Often this discussion spreads quickly. Even though Instagram is not available to audiences in China, the diaspora caught Dolce and Gabbana’s comments on the platform and made sure they were circulated on social media platforms at home.

A woman using Instagram on her phone

Brands shouldn’t underestimate the power of social media. A marketing faux pas in one market can easily make its way around the word-even if some social media platforms are siloed within one country. Image Credit: ulyana_andreeva /

One curious feature of China’s moral outrage is that state-owned media will often jump on the bandwagon when cultural outrage kicks in. 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 that foreign luxury brands are being closely monitored by the authorities.

Double standards

Some commentators have pointed out the 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. While 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 unique to China. Twitter participants in 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 suffered the backlash.

There’s little excuse for many of the errors brands are making in China and around the world at the moment. The luxury industry is enjoying a sales bonanza in the Chinese 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 quickly excluded as online critics across the globe quickly rally their indignation.

Written by Demetrius Williams
Demetrius Williams
Demetrius Williams is a Digital Marketing Specialist at TranslateMedia and has previous eCommerce experience working with a number of luxury brands in the fashion and beauty industry. He enjoys photography, binge-watching Netflix and can often be found roaming around London with a camera in his hand.

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