Last week was a tough one for French fashion powerhouse Balenciaga. They faced a public relations crisis in mainland China following security staff’s rough handling of Chinese customers at its boutique in a Paris department store.
A short video of the scuffle that first surfaced on WeChat and was reposted to Weibo on April 25 led to Chinese internet users calling for a boycott of Balenciaga. The next morning, the Kering-owned label issued a statement apologizing and expressing regret about the incident. That, however, failed to calm angry crowds online who believed Chinese consumers had been discriminated against. They criticized the apology for its vague description of the incident, and for not explicitly using the word ‘Chinese’.
With the crisis continuing, Balenciaga released a second apology the following day. This version, which recognized the “seriousness” of the incident and gave more details about its investigations and response, helped cool things down.
Balenciaga’s handling of the crisis offers some good lessons for luxury brands operating in China on how they should behave when running into a socially- and politically-sensitive public relations crisis.
China’s “Hurt Feelings”
Balenciaga’s first mistake was underestimating Chinese consumers’ fascination with controversies relating to how China and Chinese people are perceived and treated abroad. Patriotic indignation is learned behavior from the Chinese Communist Party’s long history of using the supposed “hurt feelings” of Chinese people, as The Economist puts it, “to put aside its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.” As Chinese consumers’ purchasing power in the luxury market increases, a perceived wrong is an opportunity to assert themselves.
Sometimes, it is entirely warranted. In February, we reported on how Chinese customers were being charged more at Heathrow Airport duty free stores, infuriating Chinese shoppers.
Other times, consumers align themselves with Communist Party geopolitical objectives. Luxury hotel chain Marriott International was attacked by Chinese consumers for listing Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan as “countries” on its China website. Under pressure from the Party and consumers, Marriott shut down the website for more than a week while it redesigned the site.
French cosmetic brand Lancôme likewise found themselves under fire for a political mistake. In 2016, state newspaper The Global Times reported that the brand planned to sponsor a concert by “Pro-Hong Kong independence” singer Denise Ho, enraging some Chinese netizens. Lancôme issued a public apology.
The power of social media misinformation
Balenciaga also underestimated how even a small complaint can grow into a movement with misinformation spreading quickly on Chinese social media. According to Rachel Catanach, China President for FleishmanHillard, the particulars of a given incident are important, but the wider perceptions of it also need to be managed.
“In the social media age, consumers are quick to judge what they believe is right and wrong. Brands need to be conscious of this and address not only those directly affected by an incident but also the wider populace that may be offended by the situation,” said Catanach. Obviously, the first, brief statement released by Balenciaga failed to address the points that matter to emotional Chinese consumers.
Education, education, education
At a time when Chinese people are more and more educated and internationalized, their understanding of certain social issues such as racism—which was perceived to be at the heart of the Balenciaga scandal—is also on the rise. Many Chinese media outlets and online commenters compared the incident to a Starbucks manager calling the cops on two African American customers who hadn’t made purchases.
Managing a publicity crisis for luxury brands is certainly different from that of mass-market consumer brands like Starbucks. But the best way to handle PR crises is the same for both: to prevent them from happening to begin with. In our previous interview with PR experts, they suggested brands not only need to communicate with stakeholders when a crisis emerges, but take the time to educate them about who a brand is and what it stands for on a daily basis, building support and understanding from customers that will make the brand more resilient to any unwelcome surprises.