When the Chinese Year of the Horse came around last year, British luxury brand Burberry had it made. Since the label’s own logo bears the majestic creature, it launched a collection of special-edition holiday gift items and gold gift boxes emblazoned with its emblem. Now that we’re in gift-giving season for the Year of the Sheep, it’s taking a different route that hasn’t been too popular with Chinese internet commenters as foreign brands struggle to create special items for the China market that don’t fall flat with consumers.
Instead of referencing this year’s zodiac animal, Burberry opted to emblazon its signature plaid scarf with a bright red monogram with the character fu (福), which means “prosperity” and is often displayed for Chinese New Year. Users on microblogging platform Weibo weren’t impressed, taking to the platform to say that the scarf “looks fake” and the character isn’t turned upside-down, which is how it’s typically displayed for the holiday (this means that prosperity has arrived—the words for “upside down” and “to arrive” sound the same in Mandarin).
Special items for the China market have become increasingly common among Western luxury brands over the past several years, and are especially prevalent during China’s most important gift-giving season. Goods often made with red and gold—colors auspicious in Chinese culture—along with items bearing the year’s zodiac animal are typical.
Attention to Chinese culture is important for the creation and presentation of special-edition China items. For the Year of the Sheep, Johnnie Walker recently released a bottle of its Blue Label Whisky depicting an image inspired by the famous Chinese painting Three Rams from the Emperor Qianlong era during the Qing dynasty. In order to see the full painting with the Johnnie Walker label at once, four bottles can be displayed together. Chinese consumers will be more likely to gift single bottles, however—four is an inauspicious number in Chinese culture because it sounds like the word for “death” in Chinese.
For the Year of the Dragon in 2012, Ferrari created a “Marco Polo red” $870,000 limited-edition Italia model with a dragon emblazoned on it exclusively for China, and then proceeded to film a wheel-spinning stunt on top of a 600-year-old wall in Nanjing. The wheels left tire marks on the historic structure, prompting Ferrari to issue an official apology to the Chinese government.
While not associated with Chinese New Year, the “takeout box” handbag is another example of a cultural faux pas with the China market. The style was created by Chanel in 2010 and subsequently emulated by Kate Spade and Charlotte Olympia. When the Kate Spade bag was presented at New York Fashion Week in 2014 after it was ostensibly inspired by a trip to Shanghai by the brand’s creative director, Weibo commenters responded with confusion and mockery. That’s because the shape of the box is only common in American Chinese restaurants, not actual restaurants in China. Those that did understand found the bag to be tacky, instead expressing preference for a bag in the shape of a Japanese-style maneki-neko cat in the same collection.
There are several things brands can do with special China items to make sure their Chinese New Year items don’t fall short. The first is to stay true to their own heritage and aesthetics—for example, Burberry could have had more Year of the Sheep success by promoting its wool items. For foreign brands, teaming up with Chinese artists and designers is also a good bet—Château Mouton Rothschild is hosting a special auction with Sotheby’s in Hong Kong featuring bottles with ram images created by Chinese and other artists. The key for brands to remember is that the China market is home to savvy and sophisticated consumers who won’t hesitate to point out a cultural slip-up when they see one.