No matter where they’re doing business, most major multinational consumer brands have one strategy when it comes to politics: stay far, far away. But from Google to Lego and most recently Lancôme, companies have learned that this is nearly impossible when it comes to doing business in China, where government censorship issues invade almost every aspect of public life in one way or another.
Last week, Lancôme found itself in the middle of a PR nightmare when Hong Kong protesters demonstrated at its counters to criticize the cancellation of a Hong Kong mini-concert by pop star and Occupy Central supporter Denise Ho. By cancelling the concert, the beauty brand inadvertently dove into straight into the current tension that permeates Hong Kong-mainland relations.
The dispute started when the state-run mainland Chinese media outlet Global Times decided to stir up controversy after catching wind that Lancôme had invited Ho to perform in Hong Kong. It posted a particularly incendiary “survey” on its Weibo account asking users to weigh in on what they thought about the decision to host the concert given her “pro-independence” views on Tibet and Hong Kong, which was met with a barrage of negative comments from mainlanders about the singer and brand.
This social media post was enough to cause Lancôme to rethink its decision to hold the event, and the beauty brand promptly tried to quell the controversy by citing “security concerns” in its announcement to cancel the concert.
Local Hong Kongers were not buying the brand’s excuse, especially after Denise Ho released a statement criticizing the brand for “kneeling down to a bullying hegemony.” As protesters took to shopping centers to hold up signs near the Lancôme booths, the brand closed all 23 of its boutiques across the city, and parent company L’Oreal did the same for its other brands, including Kiehl’s and The Body Shop. The move has also sparked the ire of consumers in the company’s home country of France, where a petition being circulated calling for a boycott has reached over 81,000 signatures as of today.
While Lancôme reopened stores on Thursday and has offered Ho compensation for the gig, its woes continue. Global Times followed up with a gleeful article basking in the chaos it started, stating, “Apparently Lancôme is more inclined to take care of the emotions of the people on the mainland. The reason is very simple: the size of the mainland market is multiple times that of Hong Kong. This row shows that members of the public in mainland China have realized their impeccable power to influence the market.” It also ominously asserted, “From now on, they will no longer be kind towards celebrities or anyone who makes money out of China but at the same time criticizes China.”
Whether Lancôme canceled the concert to appease the masses of angry Weibo commenters, to prevent more state-led attacks on its brand, or to actually remove any chance of an outbreak of violence at what was supposed to be a family-friendly promotional event, it learned the hard way that doing business in China often means getting involved in politics, whether a company wants to or not. The same lesson has been learned by countless other brands in recent memory, including Google when it ran up against issues of censorship, Lego when it refused to sell bulk orders of its toys to anyone using them for “political” reasons, and Hollywood film studios looking to get their movies into the mainland market.
Brands that think they can avoid Lancôme’s fate by steering clear of celebrity brand ambassadors with political affiliations will be far from immune from political controversies in China—especially when it comes to the mainland-Hong Kong dispute. The controversy over encroaching mainland government control isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, as the Occupy Central protests have shown. Unlike mainland celebrities, who are generally held on a tight leash by the Chinese government, Hong Kong stars are more likely to say what they want and have a young and angry local fan base to please. Dozens of Hong Kong celebrities—including superstars like Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung—have spoken out in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, and many have done so even if it meant being blacklisted from future film opportunities. With a retail slump driven by declining mainland tourist numbers, many brands are shifting their focus to the local Hong Kong market, meaning more Hong Kong celebrity endorsements will be critical.
The goal in the Chinese media’s attack on Lancôme was likely intended to not only scare brands, but also to muzzle celebrities by making them fear the loss of lucrative brand sponsorship deals if they speak out. Denise Ho expressed her fear that this is a growing problem in her statement. “This is not only about me and the brand,” she wrote. “It’s about the whole situation in Hong Kong where everyone is being suppressed and everyone is living in some kind of a ‘white terror’ that we cannot speak out publicly about anything concerning the Chinese government.”
It’s not going to be that easy to get angry Hong Kongers to back down, however. According to Ho, “Should we stop self-censoring out of fear and start respecting ourselves and others based on good honest work—we could all be freer,” continuing, “because the reality is that if we opt to stay mute and do nothing, these would all be stripped away from us before we notice.”
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