Two months ago, the luxury clothier released a scarf featuring the Chinese character Fu (福), which means "blessings and prosperity". The wool scarf, which otherwise looks like a normal Burberry scarf, was available in three colours and priced at 5,750 RMB (US$919).
Many Chinese consumers did not appreciate the gesture—and not only because of the obscene price.
While many Western brands incorporate the new year's zodiac animal into their Chinese New Year products and packaging to engage gift-giving consumers, Burberry apparently adopted the Fu character because it would allow the brand to sell the same product even after the year of the goat/sheep/ram ends.
"Did the Burberry designer get his/her head squashed between doors?" one online commenter said. "What the Fu?"
Secondly, according to online critics on Weibo, the Chinese monogram on the Burberry scarf had the effect of making it look like a knock-off (shan zhai 山寨) as it was out of place against the classic Burberry plaid. Wealthy Chinese consumers (tu hao 土豪), actually harbour a dislike for anything that reeks of ‘Made in China’.
"Local tu hao are only willing to spend on Burberry because the products have no overt Chinese elements but rather European flair," another person posted. "Quickly weed out this idea of catering to Chinese culture!"
The scarf came under fire in Hong Kong as well, where its use of the simplified-Chinese character stirred tensions relating to the commercial muscle of mainland visitors and the way local shops tailor their products and service for them.
The negative press started with Apple Daily, which in its typically sarcastic tone deciphered Burberry's action as a tactic to pander to the mainland market while ignoring the Hong Kong buyers.
Brands ranging from Giordano to Agnes B have similarly faced outrage for switching the text on particular items, from apparal tags to café menus, from traditional Chinese (the written form used in Hong Kong) to simplified Chinese (the form used on the mainland).
"The fact of the matter is, the [scarf] was designed especially for the Chinese market," a source close to the brand said. It is commercially undeniable that China represents almost 35 to 40 per cent of revenue for any luxury brand, and every single luxury brand has a China edition, the source added.
It's also natural that shops in Hong Kong will cater to mainland visitors. "The fact of the matter is they're not buying enough, and won't," the source said of native Hong Kong shoppers.
In defence of Burberry, it is not fair to state that the brand doesn't care about Hong Kong. The brand launched an exclusive collection in Hong Kong in late 2013 to celebrate the one-year anniversary of its Pacific Place store opening. Only two other cities were presented with exclusive collections that year: New York and London.
Last September, Burberry also developed a Hong Kong interpretation of its Art Of The Trench campaign, together with local photographer Wing Shya, featuring creative pioneers from Hong Kong wearing a trench coat. "And Wing Shya is not cheap," said the source.
What this incident calls into question is how consumers are challenging brands to have "authentic aesthetics that will not cause weird reactions due to different expectations", added the source.