Mistakes Foreign Brands Make in Marketing in China

Dec 12, 2023 |
Up Your Marketing Game in China with Our Insights

Marketing in China poses unique challenges even for renowned international brands. Successfully entering this dynamic market demands ongoing vigilance, given its evolving marketing channels.

Before launching marketing plans in China, foreign companies must pay special attention to critical aspects. In a competitive landscape where shared goals abound, the key question becomes: how can a brand truly stand out while preserving its foreign identity?

Effectively engaging with local consumers and establishing meaningful connections is a central concern. Maintaining the authenticity of a foreign brand is crucial, but it begs the question: how can companies bridge the gap and resonate with the diverse preferences of the Chinese audience?

To unravel these complexities, we will explore a series of case studies, examining how foreign companies either carve their niche or falter in the ever-evolving marketing game in China.

Misunderstanding of Traditional Chinese Culture

In the realm of marketing in China, the primary and foundational task is to effectively communicate your message to the target consumers. While the importance of this is universally acknowledged, foreign marketers frequently overlook the critical aspect of understanding cultural differences, complicating what should be a straightforward endeavor.

Even for established brands in the Chinese market that diligently conduct research and plan their marketing activities, mishaps can still occur. This underscores the challenge of seamlessly navigating cultural nuances, emphasizing the need for a nuanced and culturally sensitive approach in conveying messages to the diverse Chinese audience.

Burberry – New Year Family Portrait or Horror Movie Poster?

2019, Burberry launched its inaugural Lunar New Year campaign, utilizing the hashtag #BurberryChineseNewYear on Weibo. The campaign generated substantial interest with 4 million views and 90,000 discussions, indicating significant attention. Regrettably, the brand fell short of achieving its intended impact.

In collaboration with Chinese ambassadors Zhao Wei and Zhou Dongyu, Burberry aimed to portray a modern Lunar New Year, highlighting the theme of family reunion. However, the response from Chinese consumers differed significantly from the brand’s intentions.

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Image 1: The full view of the family portrait in Burberry’s New Year campaign. (Source, Sina China Weibo, @Burberry)

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Image 2: Another perspective, as if grandma is surrounded by her malicious “family members.” (Source, Sina China Weibo @Burberry)

The confusion surrounding Burberry’s Lunar New Year campaign was evident as many failed to grasp why the depicted family appeared so unhappy during the festive season. One Weibo user skeptically questioned, “Does Burberry think I’m the type to solemnly celebrate the New Year?” Some even went so far as to concoct alternative narratives, such as “a heartless family plotting against their wealthy grandmother, preparing to fight for their fortune.

Despite the humor in these interpretations, the attention and discussions on social media didn’t translate into positive business performance for Burberry. Market data revealed a decline in demand in the Chinese market.

Burberry’s attempt to subtly tweak the traditional Chinese family portrait overlooked the need to delve into cultural nuances beneath the surface and thoroughly research the potential messages the audience might receive. If there is one word to encapsulate the spirit of the Lunar New Year, it is “festive” rather than “united.” When elements like dark clothing, gloomy faces, and somber backgrounds contradict this spirit, it is no surprise the project failed to convey the right message to Burberry’s target audience.

Prada – Missteps with “Chinese Red”

Prada is another brand that has left Chinese consumers speechless during the holiday season.

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(Source: Sina News, https://k.sina.cn/article_5183145981_v134f087fd01900ewkd.html)

Chinese responses to PRADA’s campaign varied from “terrible” and “weird” to likening it to “a perfect fit for a horror movie trailer.” Despite incorporating three prominent red Chinese characters throughout the video, symbolizing New Year blessings, the campaign failed to evoke any sense of blessing among the audience.

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(Source: Sina News, https://k.sina.cn/article_5183145981_v134f087fd01900ewkd.html)

Let us dissect the elements that contributed to the miscommunication:

The choice of a classic old Shanghai setting, traditional square tables (reminiscent of those in Hong Kong horror films), and models donned in retro attire may symbolize China internationally, but they feel outdated and fail to resonate with China’s younger generation.

Combining these outdated elements with a spine-chilling, excessively bloody red background (while Chinese people appreciate red during the New Year, this was a bit too much) and the melancholic expressions of the models, the commercial inadvertently takes on the appearance of a horror film straight out of the ’90s.

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(Source: Sina News, https://k.sina.cn/article_5183145981_v134f087fd01900ewkd.html)

Likewise, this case serves as a poignant example of how Chinese marketing strategies, devoid of a nuanced understanding of traditional culture, can misfire, eliciting more negative emotions than positive ones.

Difficulty in Translating Advertising Campaign Messages

Many assume that translating from their native language to Chinese is as straightforward as translating to most other languages. However, those who engage in conversations with Mandarin speakers can attest to the challenges of direct translation.

In these instances, the presence of native Chinese speakers becomes crucial. Numerous examples highlight the potential catastrophic consequences poorly executed translations can inflict on a company’s reputation. Chinese is a highly contextual language, posing challenges for translation software to accurately convey messages.

Adding to the complexity, Chinese is a language in constant evolution, giving rise to numerous internet-related vocabularies. A valuable tip we have discovered is to seek translations relevant to your target audience, ensuring the use of correct language and phrases to effectively engage your audience. Advertising copy is a vital component of marketing, requiring careful consideration rather than haphazard presentation by a brand.

Pepsi: Bringing Your Ancestors Back to Life

While it is an old example, its relevance persists. Pepsi has never officially addressed the incident, leaving the details unconfirmed, but the lesson remains valuable.

In the 1960s, Pepsi encountered challenges connecting with the younger generation, often viewed merely as an alternative to Coca-Cola. Eager to transform this perception, Pepsi launched the successful “Come Alive! You are the Pepsi Generation” campaign.

However, when extending their success from Western to other markets, Pepsi faced a misstep in translation. The advertising copy, when translated, took an unexpected turn:

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(Source: Zhihu, https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/91600517)

As Pepsi extended its promotion to Chinese consumers with a new translated slogan, they soon realized their translation carried a completely different meaning. What was intended as a positive message ended up conveying, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back to life.

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(Source: Zhihu, https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/91600517)

Misuse of Stereotypical Impressions of Old China

When aiming to captivate the Chinese market with special products or advertising campaigns, it is crucial to avoid merely resorting to stereotypical Chinese cultural symbols like dragons, phoenixes, red lanterns, and blue and white porcelain. For many Chinese individuals, this approach is perceived as tacky, akin to targeting Americans with cowboy hats, hamburgers, and apple pies – simply too cliché.

While these symbols might be widely recognized as Chinese cultural elements elsewhere, their effectiveness diminishes when communicating with Chinese consumers today. When crafting marketing materials for this audience, it is essential to consider their unique tastes rather than relying solely on these outdated themes.

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(Source: https://cn.fashionnetwork.com/)

Nike’s 2016 Chinese New Year series featured traditional Lunar New Year blessings of “fa 发” (prosperity) and “fu 福” (good luck). They failed to realize that when worn together, “fa fu 发福” literally means “getting fat.”

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(Source: The Paper, China, https://m.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_1299036?bdchannel=)

Burberry’s 2015 RMB limited edition scarf, supposedly carrying the large Chinese character “fu 福” (Fortune), was criticized by Chinese netizens as resembling replicas found in local wholesale markets.

Presently, many marketing strategies employed by foreign brands in China rely on outdated and often inaccurate stereotypes. However, Chinese consumers, particularly millennials and Gen Z, seek a more nuanced approach. Rather than being inundated with shallow cultural clichés, they want brands to acknowledge and resonate with their current modernity.

Victoria’s Secret – A Fashion Show Reminiscent of Lion Dancing

In a notable example, Victoria’s Secret committed a marketing blunder during their 2016 fashion show by incorporating a series of lingerie with a dragon theme aimed at appealing to Chinese consumers.

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(Source: https://m.jiemian.com/article/1774256.html)
Elsa Hosk at the 2016 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show

Regrettably, the use of a dragon motif was deemed “tacky” and “ugly” by the Chinese audience. The lingerie outfits failed to convey elegance or nobility, highlighting a disconnect between Victoria’s Secret and the preferences of the modern Chinese audience.

Another crucial consideration for businesses marketing to Chinese consumers is to steer clear of consistently employing extremely bright and saturated color schemes. As seen in the case of Victoria’s Secret, such color choices can inadvertently evoke traditional Chinese lion dancing with exaggerated and outdated color palettes.

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Traditional Chinese lion dance, known for its exaggerated and outdated color schemes

For those seeking design inspiration, the color scheme that originated in ancient China remains popular among Chinese designers today.

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(Source: Zhihu, https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/91600517)

Lowering Aesthetic Standards and Taste Does Not Equal Localization

While some brands aim to integrate China’s social progress and emerging trends into their marketing strategies, they may neglect thorough research into Chinese traditions. However, embracing an entirely new perspective may not consistently yield optimal results. It is crucial to avoid overemphasizing localization in marketing, as it could jeopardize your brand image and compromise aesthetic standards. While Chinese consumers value affordability, they are not inclined to spend a significant amount on products that appear cheap.

Dior – Critique of Brand Advertisement as Outdated

In the previous year, Dior rolled out a commercial in China showcasing its 2018 autumn-winter collection of saddlebags. Possibly recognizing the surge in online shopping, they engaged in activities reminiscent of those observed in Chinese e-commerce. Unfortunately, the entire commercial bore a striking resemblance to a low-budget promotion commonly seen on a Taobao store.

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“It looks cheaper than the knock-off handbags sold by WeChat merchants,” commented a Chinese netizen.
(Source: Zhihu, https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/91600517)

Resourceful Chinese netizens went a step further by editing video clips, incorporating Pinduoduo’s theme song and logo, to articulate their perspectives on the advertisement.

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Chinese netizens exclaimed after editing clips of Pinduoduo and Tmall ads, saying, “It finally looks right.
(Source: Zhihu, https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/91600517)

Fendi – “French Baguette”?

An additional instance is Fendi’s “Baguette” campaign, borrowing the phrase from “Sex and the City”: “It’s not a bag, it’s a Baguette.” Unfortunately, this reference is not widely recognized among Fendi’s Chinese audience, leaving them perplexed with the sole slogan in the promotional advertisement.

Beyond the confusion stemming from unclear messaging, this marketing piece has garnered criticism for a fundamental misunderstanding of the aesthetic tastes and behaviors of Chinese consumers. In an attempt to resonate with the enthusiasm of affluent Chinese girls shopping at Fendi, the brand integrates various elements presumed to be popular in China into a single ad—singing, gaming center scenes, shopping at department stores, and more—a strategy that might have been effective in the 90s.

However, for the modern Chinese consumer, the end result appears chaotic and bizarre, ultimately registering as cliché to the majority of Chinese netizens.

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(Source: https://www.dachanggongguan.com/article-96853.html)

Thoughtful Advertising Campaigns Involving Sensitive Issues

Bringing up taboo topics is a critical error that any brand should steer clear of when engaging in marketing in China. However, such mistakes persist in the marketing strategies of many Western companies targeting the Chinese market.

D&G – Undermining Their Brand Image Through Cultural Insensitivity

The era when Chinese people were dissatisfied with the “Made in China” label has passed. China’s millennial generation no longer blindly pursues Western heritage and takes pride in its own traditions.

With increasing nationalist sentiments gaining momentum on the internet, Chinese consumers are growing more conscious of the perceived cultural superiority depicted in the marketing messages of many foreign brands in China.

Consider D&G’s infamous racist advertising campaign as an example. The intention behind portraying Chinese models as clumsy while attempting to eat “our astonishingly delicious Italian pizza” with chopsticks was swiftly exposed. Subsequently, intense criticism and a widespread boycott nearly forced the brand to completely withdraw from the Chinese market, with its products seemingly vanishing from various e-commerce platforms overnight.

Even after the brand issued a public apology, the repercussions lingered. Given that nearly one-third of the global purchasing power for luxury brands comes from Chinese consumers, the fallout from this incident may endure for an extended period.

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(Source: Zhihu, https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/91600517)

Summarization Points for Successful China Marketing

Successfully marketing to Chinese consumers requires a dual focus:

  • Cultural Insight: Deeply grasping local culture is paramount. This understanding facilitates a nuanced marketing approach that aligns with Chinese customs and social dynamics.
  • Integrated Messaging: Seamlessly incorporating Chinese culture into your message is crucial for effective communication. Show respect for local traditions and infuse creativity by integrating cultural elements into a compelling narrative.

For foreign businesses seeking success in the Chinese market, navigating cultural differences with creativity stands out as the optimal strategy.

Interested to learn more, book a meeting with us and we dive into your specific needs for marketing in China!

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