At the beginning of this year, Bain’s 2017 China Luxury Market report told us that brands were planning to aggressively increase their spend on digital marketing in China, having it make up to 50% of their marketing mix. D&G might have gotten the memo, deciding to support the run-up to its Shanghai show with its DG Loves China video campaign, but the resulting debacle shows just how wrong some brands can get it.
While the campaign was crass and poorly executed, Stefano Gabbana’s racist comments about the Chinese people, which were made public after the campaign, are what really sparked fury. The founders apologized, but when the figurehead of a brand makes such comments, there is very little that can be done to recover from it. D&G may understandably never recover in this key luxury-goods market.
But if we can assume that the intention of the campaign was to boost sales, not to offend consumers and ruin the brand’s reputation, then what can we learn from these mistakes?
D&G has a history of controversy: “slave sandals” in 2016, violent ads banned in Spain in 2007, offending Hong Kong people with a photo ban, the list goes on. In some ways this controversy gains brand awareness, and it could be surmised that that was the plan in China too. Brand searches surged as a response, but walking that fine line between provocation and just being offensive is extremely difficult, even more so across deeply different cultures.
Before the designer’s racist comments were made public, there was already a collective eye roll at the style and tone of this advert. Chinese consumers are used to foreign companies trying to gain a share of their wallet and this seemed like another poorly executed attempt. The translation of chopsticks as “tools that are made of wooden sticks" (这种小木棍制成的工具) not only seemed clunky and weird but showed a complete lack of understanding that in China wood is valued over metal for eating as it is believed to have less of an effect on the taste of the food, and that chopsticks are purposefully blunt so as not to remind the user of the realities of slaughtering what they are eating. Moreover, nobody in China needs a lesson on how to eat pizza these days, as it’s is widely eaten in all urbanised areas.
The idea that anybody would attempt to pick up an entire pizza with chopsticks is completely ridiculous. In fact it’s so ridiculous that one might give the benefit of the doubt to the team responsible for ideating this campaign and believe it to be an attempt at humour. The red sparkly dress on the model, cos y’know, Chinese people like the colour red, the dodgy subtitles and voiceover, the innuendo “It’s still way too big for you, isn’t it?” (对你们来说还是太大了吗). Was this meant to be a pastiche of old fashioned Chinese adverts? As we all know, laughing at ourselves is very different to being laughed at, so even if you have expert, local-market based marketeers writing the jokes, will they really be received correctly if they are coming from a foreign brand? If this was an attempt at humour, it failed dismally and made people feel extremely uncomfortable.
Thankfully there are lots of brands who are getting it right in China, celebrating Chinese culture with creativity and respect, while supporting their brand identity. Timberland for example did a fantastic campaign this year featuring the international designer Benson Chen creating a traditional Chinese paper cutting. With beautiful styling and excellent translation and subtitling, this campaign was authentic and modern. Budweiser picked an emotive subject for Chinese people—the return home for Chinese New Year—for its 2018 Chinese New Year campaign. This campaign touched on the challenging relationships young modern Chinese people can have with their more traditional parents, a subject highly relevant for the single child policy generation, without offending.
Localising advertising concepts for foreign markets is hard and requires not only a good grasp of the language but also of the history and culture of the region. Even if brands have local language speakers on their team or an agency’s assistance, they must tread carefully or risk deeply offending the consumers they wish to delight.
Lindsay Hong is chief operating officer of Locaria.