Inviting outspoken pro-democracy singer Denise Ho to perform at its concert opened Lancôme up to criticism and online pressure from consumers in mainland China. Cancelling Ho’s appearance in response led to a backlash from Hong Kong. From start to finish, Lancôme’s handling of the whole ‘kow-tow controversy’ has damaged its brand.
YouGov data shows signs of slow recovery for Lancôme in Hong Kong after reaching a low point in the city’s consumer sentiment on 21 June. However, in mainland China, the buzz score remained stable across the same time period, tracked for the purpose of this article. Purchase consideration for Lancôme among females in China was also unsurprisingly higher than in Hong Kong—an increase of 6 percentage points two days after the saga, but has now gone back to the same level as it was at the end of May.
There have been several missteps on the part of the brand, starting with why Denise Ho was invited in the first place if 23 percent of Lancôme’s global business comes from China. That demonstrates a lack of local knowledge of current affairs.
Lancôme’s overreaction to online commentary and the Global Times article escalated the situation and turned a gossipy topic into a crisis. If Lancôme had waited for a couple of days, the noise would have possibly died down in China. Lancôme’s actions have upset both Hong Kong and China consumers. To consumers in China, the action isn’t enough; to consumers in Hong Kong, it surrendered to pressure.
The question is: are those who can afford Lancôme in China likely to be so sensitive about a Hong Kong singer taking part in a concert in that city to stop buying its products? Hong Kong consumers are more likely to boycott brands for political reasons, and some on Facebook are calling for a boycott of all L’Oréal products. Others have dug deeper into alleged animal testing that Lancôme conducts, so much more negative comments about the brand have emerged.
These do more real harm to the brand than allowing a singer to perform in an one-off event.
Hyun Jee Oh
Department of Communication Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University
I wondered why Lancôme had invited Denise Ho to the mini-concert. As a cosmetics brand, it wouldn’t want to be involved in any political issues. If it wanted to leverage Cantopop, it could have chosen a celebrity with a neutral reputation. This shows Lancôme is ignorant about local sensitivities, and gave too much ammunition for Chinese media to attack the brand. Abruptly cancelling the concert without notifying the celebrity herself was another mistake, as it looks like pandering to the Chinese market.
Perhaps the brand was happy that it detected the backlash and felt it was ‘proactive’ in tackling it, but this is the wrong way of being proactive. It should have spoken to Ho about the potential issues, then issue an ambiguous statement about ‘safety issues’.
Lancôme also “forced” staff to take annual leave when the brand closed stores due the protest. This is invasion of their own will. Managing internal audiences is the first step in crisis communications.
Lancôme is now trapped: any other action will signal another change in position. If it had made it clear at the start that the brand is politically-neutral, things might be better today. It’s too late now. It needs to go on with its business, but cease any promotional events, as that would exacerbate the situation.