Sep 26, 2019 | By Jane Boddy
International brands in China run a real risk of cultural missteps, and the ramifications can be severe. Athena Chen, WGSN’s Senior Editor for Asia Pacific, outlines how to avoid them.
Versace, Coach and Swarovski have found themselves in trouble in China recently, with angry consumers using social media to call for boycotts, and numerous Chinese celebrity ambassadors cutting ties with the brands.
Chinese consumers – especially younger ones – are digital-savvy, well informed, and have a strong sense of national pride, and they are quick to use social media to call out brands they deem offensive towards China. State media then picks up on this and endorses the push-back as a patriotic act, and Chinese celebrities come out and take a stand, for fear of being banned or blacklisted by the government. Combined with current diplomatic tensions and the ongoing Hong Kong protests, this has led to a recent spike in online backlashes.
So how can brands avoid offensive cultural missteps? To start, it’s important to recognise that insults can take many forms. At the most obvious end of the scale, they can stem from racist and patronising messages – Dolce & Gabbana’s campaign last year is a text-book case. Then, at the more subtle end of the scale, insults can stem from presenting China in what could be seen as an unflattering light. For example, when Zara did not remove the freckles of Chinese model Jing Wen in its latest beauty campaign, it was seen as ‘uglifying China’ and there was an outcry online.
These controversies are nothing new. In the past the Chinese government has called out hotels and airlines for listing territories such as Hong Kong as countries on their booking websites. In light of this, global brands should step up efforts to work with their China teams and audit their online channels and offline products to make sure they are in step with the One-China policy, which states that there is only one sovereign state under the name China (the People’s Republic of China, now commonly known as China, was established 1949 and encompasses the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau, while the Republic of China, now commonly known as Taiwan, controlled the mainland from 1912 until the civil war in 1949, and is not officially recognised as a legitimate independent government by China).
Brands should also work to invest in educating and cultivating culturally adept people across the company. Brands that are now operating in a global context have to try and go beyond cultural clichés and understand the nuances. Don’t assume one product and message fits all. This means taking a more collaborative approach to brand building and involving local teams on the ground. For example, marketing to the Chinese consumer is not just about putting Chinese models in catalogues and piling up cultural motifs.
Research is crucial – social-media listening is a good way to get an idea of consumer sentiments, and recruiting local focus groups to consult can be a good idea before large-scale launches and campaigns. International brands can also learn a lot from case studies of successful local leading brands.
However, in our current global context, even brands with the best intentions can find themselves stepping on toes, sooner or later. If that is the case, be swift in reacting and ensure affirmative action is taken to make amends. Apologies should be done on both Western social media as well as Chinese. Not addressing the issue on global channels may be viewed as disingenuous.
As Chinese consumers become more sophisticated, companies have to put in the work to fully understand the Chinese market, in order to gain relevance and market share – and they have to be aware, too, of how their actions in other markets may still influence their image in China.
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