Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
Jul 6, 2016

Lancôme controversy, one month on: Brand damage in HK worse than China

YouGov's June data show the negative impact the Lancôme concert-cancellation saga had among females in Hong Kong, but not China.

HONG KONG - It's been exactly one month since ​Lancôme cancelled outspoken pro-democracy Denise Ho's Hong Kong concert with an ambiguous statement citing "possible safety reasons". Since then, the brand has held back on further damage control, while the vitrolic comments from Hong Kong netizens who saw the move as bowing to China continues.

YouGov was tasked to conduct a poll in both markets in June specifically for this Campaign article. The data comes from BrandIndex, YouGov's daily brand tracker, which conducts online surveys to measure public perception. From 1 to 21 June, the "buzz score" (calculated by sum of positive minus negative comments, equivalent to general sentiment) for Lancôme in Hong Kong dropped from +8 to -37, then rose slightly to -22 on 30 June. However, in China the buzz score among females remained stable across the same time period.

Purchase consideration for Lancôme among females in Hong Kong dipped from a peak of 18 percent on 29 May to a low of 4 percent between 12 and 18 June, then recovered slightly to 8 percent on 30 June. Across the same time period, purchase consideration in China saw an increase, but has now gone back to the same level as it was at the end of May—unsurprsingly.

In Hong Kong, Lancôme’s handling of the whole ‘kow-tow controversy’ has damaged its brand. We speak to two 'brand doctors'.


Emma Smith
Asia CEO
MHP Communications

This has certainly taken Lancôme from the beauty pages to the political pages. 

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
Assistant professor
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. 

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