WESTERN BRANDS AND THEIR CHINESE BLUNDERS
Updated: Aug 31, 2019
It seems that Western brands just keep getting into hot water in China, with last years notorious D&G online mishap followed more recently by Burberry’s much criticised Chinese New Years’ campaign. The Burberry print campaign (featuring Chinese actresses Zhao Wei and Zhou Dongyu alongside several models) loosely portrays a “family” where people of different ages are gathered around a matriarch seated in their midst, but has been widely criticised on Chinese social media as being “eerie” “creepy” and “missing the mark”. Some even querying whether that brand intentionally set out to insult Chinese consumers in the wake of the D&G incident.
When the China Daily approached me to comment on this campaign, asking whether Western brands were not aware of the cultural sensitivity in the Chinese market, it gave me pause for thought.
Chinese shoppers are the backbone for the revenues of major western luxury brands. Much planning and resources are dedicated to this key market, and I think Western brands are aware they need to connect with Chinese culture. However, they often seem to lack the in-depth knowledge to do so. Both the D&G and Burberry cases are actually examples of trying to reach out, be it in a rather misguided way.
Take the D&G chopsticks fiasco - I truly think the brand did not mean offence, but was trying to land a youth-targeted clip with a “sarcastic/ humorous” tone in a market that totally missed the “humour” and went on to be offended. Same with Burberry, who were aiming to connect with the notion of “family reunion” inherent to the Chinese New Year, but missed the right emotional tone and essence of family; the bond between generations, devotion and filial piety, longing to be together and reunite from often distant places, the familiar taste of foods lovingly prepared and shared, and so on. What we end up with instead is a portrait of a Chinese “Adams family” of sorts.
Probably, Burberry was trying to combine the cool and detached look of a premium brand (with strategic plans to go even more premium in the near future) and the idea of a family get-together, as the campaign title “Modern tradition” hints at. And maybe that was just too ambitious and complex a goal to achieve at a sensitive and meaningful time of the year.
So what is going on here ? For one, being culturally relevant is more complicated than just playing back symbols, words or colours (in another famous mishap a few years ago, Burberry printed its CNY scarf editions with the 福 “Fu” symbol (which stands for good fortune / prosperity) the right way up instead of upside down as traditionally done. Being culturally relevant is about keeping one’s finger on consumers pulse and understanding both traditions and “deep culture” as well as how values and society are evolving in real time. As such, the function of consumer insight should be given more weight in marketing structures in this global age.
But there is also a structural block in the way of successful localisation. I think Western brands need to systematically infuse more local knowledge into their global strategies down to creative execution. Local markets around the world are becoming more important than ever with the saturation of Western markets, so a ground-up approach is necessary. I am sure companies like Burberry have numerous Chinese staff across their operations in China and even in the UK, but for some reason those employees were not empowered to weigh in on this creative execution. That is a missed opportunity!