Since China’s markets opened to the world in the early 1980s, nationalist sentiment has created unpredictable factors for international brands. Chinese nationalism can be said to be the “monster hiding in the corner of the room” that could appear at any time.
In recent weeks, fallout from the Hague ruling on China’s sovereignty in the South China sea has fueled another, yet unique, rise in local nationalism. In the wake of it, Beijing has considered the findings as farcical, presented through local media mouthpieces.
Following the decision, local netizens on B2C e-commerce platform Tmall organised an official boycott of products from The Philippines, including well-liked dried mangoes.
Chinese celebrities were quick to show allegiance by posting 'politically correct’ maps on their Weibo pages. While A-listers such as Angelababy, Fan Bingbing, Yang Mi and Huang Bo rallied behind the official view, HongKongers Jackie Chan and Charlene Choi were criticised for posting non-nationalistic material.
In a surprising announcement, limitations were also placed on public appearances of wildly popular South Korean celebrities in China, ostensibly due to South Korea’s views on the territorial dispute.
Others took to the streets, with reports of small-scale protests outside US fast-food brands KFC and McDonald's in 11 Chinese cities. Calls for more general boycotts of Starbucks and Apple surfaced on WeChat and Weibo posts.
In the most extreme expression of jingoism, videos of people smashing iPhones were posted online, bluntly encouraging locals to be more patriotic with their shopping choices.
This is all occurring as Apple’s iPhone falls from market-leader status in China to now fifth, beaten by local brands Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi and Huawei. It has been pushing a standardised product and in terms of nationalism, this provides less ‘wiggle room'. Long-overdue localisation of Apple’s China story will become important insurance for the brand.
The Olympics will not quell the flames
Usually, China’s bouts of nationalism run their course quickly, as politics normalise and practical concerns overtake.
However, on the occasion of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, it feels as if nationalism will be ramped up to a new level. China is likely to win big, especially in the context of banned Russians.
Olympic advertising by sponsors ahead of the Games, usually wonderfully global in nature, was very nationalistic this time. Tencent featuring huge billboards of Chinese athletes winning, in isolation to other competitors, is just one example of the outward display of nationalism.
Also, the time difference with Brazil (11 hours) means a large proportion of Chinese audiences will see the games as ‘national highlights’ rather than the more global and empathetic experience of watching 'all nations compete’.
All this leads to another month of high-octane nationalism in China.
What’s an international brand to do?
This is not to say that all Chinese consumers are ardent nationalists, and therefore it is essential for international brands not to commit the folly of jingoism.
Brands such as KFC, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Apple stand out as symbolically American, so are the easy targets to coalesce nationalistic feelings.
But looking at these brands again, they have achieved an enviable level of localisation in China. This itself provides the best defence against patriotic consumption.
From a communication standpoint, this feels like the opportune time for these brands to celebrate the time they have been in China and the unique relationship they have built with local consumers—notably across two generations. The narrative of growing together with China and having a stake in the country's future will place international brands in the good books of the Chinese, and not in the direct firing line.
Quite simply, if you are part of China’s positive story, you cannot be cast as the enemy.
Jerry Clode is head of digital and social insight at Resonance China.