Burberry’s Weird Chinese New Year Tribute Stirs Controversy

How creepy can a luxury brand’s tribute to Chinese New Year be? Burberry’s latest campaign has attracted a blitz of criticism on social media from Chinese netizens who liken the images to scary Asian horror movies.

“Obviously, this is not about Chinese New Year,” sniped one, noting its downbeat tone, while another wrote, “such weird family portraits, it gives me goosebumps.” For some critics, the campaign, meant to celebrate China’s most revered holiday, is just another bad taste, tone-deaf instance of Western luxury brands completely missing the point in China.

 Burberry's family portrait to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year. Photo: Weibo

Burberry’s family portrait to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year has a downbeat tone. Photo: Weibo

On January 3, the British fashion brand unveiled a global photography campaign meant to celebrate the upcoming Chinese Lunar New Year, which is February 5 this year. The images were produced by Ethan James Green, a talented American photographer who collaborated in the past with other luxury fashion houses like Alexander McQueen, Calvin Klein, and Marc Jacobs. This time, it may have backfired.

“This is a group of people who plan to kill this ultra-rich grandma and keenly fight over her inheritance,” wrote a user named “miaomeili”, joking about the family portraits. Another one echoed, “Unhappy family, unhappy Burberry. No one is looking normal.” Many similar comments have been posted, and other critics have wondered if the images are a depressing comment on the nation’s souring economy.

Vicky Zhao (赵薇) and Zhou Dongyu (周冬雨), two prominent actresses just named new Burberry brand ambassadors last week, feature in the campaign along with Chinese models. They all dressed in a number of Burberry’s classic signature items including monogram scarves, trench coats, and T-shirts to pose for family portraits.

Chinese Lunar New Year, a culturally significant holiday equal in importance, family, and optimism to Christmas in the West, is also a crucial opportunity for luxury brands to bump up retail sales. The goal of this campaign, therefore, is likely to raise the interest of Chinese consumers to purchase the items these models wore, all of which have already been made available on Burberry’s official website and offline retail stores. However, some Chinese currently show more interest in mocking these “horrible” shots.

Burberry declined to comment on the criticism.

Brand ambassadors Vicky Zhao and Zhou Dongyu posing for Burberry's CNY campaign. Photo: VCG

Brand ambassadors Vicky Zhao and Zhou Dongyu posing for Burberry’s CNY campaign. Photo: VCG

Some other users blatantly stated this is another failure of cultural appropriation following in the footsteps of Dolce & Gabbana. “First Balenciaga, then Dolce & Gabbana, and now Burberry? Chinese Lunar New Year is a period of time for family reunion, joy and luck, these people look like actors of horror movies. Sorry, no luck,” another said.

But there are a few voices supporting the images, mostly praising Zhao and Zhou’s fashion sense.

As of this publication, the topic “#BurberryChineseNewYear#” has been viewed over 500,000 users and commented on by 74,000 times on Sina Weibo.

These days luxury brands’ Chinese New Year capsule editions are under close scrutiny by Chinese shoppers. Brands’ lack of appreciation of authentic Chinese culture has in recent years caused trouble in their promotion of Chinese New Year products.

The controversy surrounding this quirky campaign may not be beneficial to Burberry, as the brand is undergoing an important repositioning into a higher price point and it places a great emphasis on the Chinese luxury market.

Yesterday, the shares of this London-listed company fell almost five percent to $20.93 (16.45 sterling), with analysts citing signs of slowing demand in China as the major reason for the drop.


Market Analysis, Marketing