Anonymous Chinese Employees on Why Western Brands Fumble When Marketing in China

From a creepy Burberry Chinese New Year ad campaign that featured a cast of devious-looking Chinese family members maniacally staring at their grandmother to a spooky and downright melancholy Prada campaign that made Chinese New Year feel more like a funeral than a celebration, big brand marketing failures surprisingly happen all the time in China.

Despite constant lip service from Western luxury brands about the importance of diversity, these culturally insensitive campaigns continue to get made and approved. It makes one wonder why these brands, who clearly have Chinese employees, work with Chinese marketing specialists, and hire Chinese KOLs, can’t install the necessary checks to help prevent these crippling missteps.

Despite constant lip service from Western luxury brands about the importance of diversity, these culturally insensitive campaigns continue to get made and approved. Photo: Weibo

Despite constant lip service from Western luxury brands about the importance of diversity, these culturally insensitive campaigns continue to get made and approved. Photo: Weibo

To understand the problem better, Jing Daily spoke with five Chinese employees who work in some of the world’s most prominent luxury groups, including LVMH, Aeffe, and Kering. Because of the sensitive nature of these topics, their quotes are given under pseudonyms, but their insights are real and reflect the fashion industry’s skewed priorities when marketing their products in China.   

The first issue that plagues many brands in China is the primary medium for their brand messages: social media. Many CEOs compare China’s quickly-evolving social media world with their own social media universe of Instagram or Facebook. But that doesn’t begin to relate to the very different and complex role social media plays in Chinese society.

“They do listen to the Chinese team on the usage of digital apps and platforms, but when it comes to influencer engagement or content collaboration, they make [up] their own mind,” said Annie Chang, a digital marketing employee for a Parisian luxury group about her Western employers. To not properly understand China’s digital culture invariably leads to a disconnect with new Chinese consumers, making a brand’s message all the more likely to be misinterpreted.

Another problem within large luxury companies is the limited role that their Chinese teams play in final marketing decisions. In the fashion world, most strategic decisions are made by a small circle of CEOs and directors, and many Chinese employees feel that errors are made engaging with a Chinese audience because they are left out of important Chinese marketing decisions.

“On the creative or product development level, the Chinese team doesn’t have any say,” said Jenny Cheung, an area manager who works with the Shanghai team of an Italian brand. Ultimately, it’s the brand’s time-honored dictum that rules her team, she said, and any cultural nuances that could affect that image are quickly rejected.

But what’s even more concerning than first two issues is the way local teams on the ground in China often feel marginalized, even though their insight could be the difference between marketing success and failure within their home country.

Balancing a global brand’s image with a culture’s local taste is a delicate game, one that requires expert opinions. Yet time and time again, companies ignore the advice of the experts they’ve hired — and often with disastrous results. Angela Wang, who works on a China marketing team for an American premium brand, explained how the New York headquarters insisted on using a white American celebrity as a brand ambassador for a Chinese campaign, overriding the Chinese team’s strong veto on the decision. “She is very little known in China, nor in Asia,” said Angela. “We all thought it was a marketing budget waste.” Alternative ideas were suggested, she added, but they went unheard.

The danger of these marketing pitfalls doesn’t mean a brand has to play it safe with their marketing either — in fact, the opposite is true. A daring move, when executed well in China, can draw immense praise and distinguish a Western brand from the rest of the crowd. A recent example is Maybelline’s wildly popular Chinese New Year Mahjong products, which drew inspiration from the popular Qing Dynasty game.

Today, more and more luxury fashion brands are paying close attention to the Chinese market, but in order to succeed there, they have to go beyond cultural clichés and really connect with contemporary Chinese people. It’s not just about putting Chinese models in the catalogs and making profiles on all the trendy Chinese apps. For real change to happen, brands must empower their Chinese hires to speak their mind and serve as goalies for any potential culturally insensitive blunders. At the very least, there’s a much greater chance that someone would point out another exoticized ad and say, “This might not work. Let’s do better.”

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Culture, Marketing & Branding