Challenging times for foreign brands in China

There was a time when summer was described as the ‘silly season’. Not any longer, as events around the world continue to show.

Escalating protests in Hong Kong are proving that it’s not just business as usual. And with tensions on the rise, now is hardly a good time for international brands to be offending nations.

Yet in the space of less than a week, two household names appeared to do precisely that – both in the luxury sector (curiously Dolce & Gabbana also caused offence in China late last year, which might suggest a problem in the industry).

Brands say sorry

Versace apologised to China after one of its T-shirts was seen to have ‘Hong Kong – Hong Kong’ printed on it alongside other city-country pairs. Innocuous, you might think, but it proved costly.

Chinese actress and singer Yang Mi terminated a lucrative contract with the brand, which has 40 stores in China. A statement was published on popular social platform Sina Weibo explaining that “As a Chinese citizen, Ms Yang Mi is very indignant that Versace’s mistake blatantly defies the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.” The statement went viral, attracting 640 million views.

Within days, Swarovski too was forced to apologise – after implying that Hong Kong was a ‘country’ on its website. In its apology shared on Facebook, the company pledged to strengthen its global brand awareness and review all its digital platform globally to ‘correct any inaccuracies’.

Swarovski also lost the support of their brand ambassador, Chinese actress Jiang Shuying, who will be terminating cooperation ‘as soon as possible’.

This is evidently a highly delicate topic, but the message is clear: brands that wish to do business in China must respect China’s ‘one China’ policy. That is, there is one China and Taiwan is part of this. Hong Kong and Macao are Special Administrative Regions within China. No ifs, no buts. That’s how it is.

Leave no stone unturned

August being August, now would be a good time to conduct a thorough audit. Every brand currently trading in China or wanting to do business in China should diligently go through their communications to ensure that nothing might be taken the wrong way – and they should do this now.

There is no room for error. Websites and social media are the most important places to begin – this is where most issues are happening – but leave nothing out. This also applies to internal communications – it’s amazing what gets out on social these days.

Marketing and communications staff need to be trained so that they are aware when they sign off on or plan new communications. This includes not only language, but also maps.

Third, brands should take extra care not to wade into political discussions or commentary online, however ‘woke’ they wish to be perceived. It’s best avoided.

But don’t leave it at that either. Brands should be mindful of cultural sensitivities. Dolce & Gabbana caused upset last year over a video showing an Asian model attempting to eat spaghetti with chopsticks. Something like this could be easily avoided with the right planning.

If you need help reviewing and updating your communications, managing a crisis (should the worst happens), or training your staff, get in touch.

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