Burberry’s first-ever Chinese New Year ad campaign hit the headlines this month, featuring actresses and brand ambassadors Zhao Wei and Zhou Dongyu. Many have noted how it reflects the brand’s high-fashion, luxury aesthetic and celebrates the traditional values of family and community that underpin the Chinese New Year celebration.
Many more, however, particularly in China, have begun mocking it viciously on social media. The dour, emotionless expressions on the models have been called ‘creepy’, while one Weibo user has even created a horror film meme about it.
Given that the Lunar New Year is about luck, celebration and joy, the blank expressions we’re used to seeing on fashion models in the West have not been well received at all. And that’s far from ideal considering the importance of the Chinese New Year trading period.
This once again reinforces the tightrope Western brands have to walk when marketing in China. Yes, they could play it safe for the New Year with a gold pig on a red background (2019 is the Year of the Pig), but that would have the same utter lack of cut-through as a bland, obvious ad saying ‘Merry Christmas from brandname’ appearing in UK and US magazines in December.
And yet if like Burberry, they take a risk with something bold and fresh, it can so easily go wrong. The brand messaging isn’t just lost in translation, it’s completely misinterpreted.
It’s not as if everything about the campaign is misplaced, of course. It reflects the brand aesthetic perfectly and the family values approach is an active effort to engage with Chinese culture on a meaningful level. But the nuances and pitfalls of marketing in China demand specialist attention – and a global creative team willing to be, at least in this instance, led by the local experts.
A brand knows its aesthetic and the look it wishes to achieve, but local specialists have to be able to feed in on the strategic direction. I suspect one focus group of Chinese nationals would have picked up on the ‘creepy’ vibe of the Burberry ad immediately. Get advice and listen to it, as that is what you pay experts to provide.
And if the brand is unwilling to localize its campaigns thoughtfully and in a way that drives greater relevance for a Chinese audience, then the advice is clear: simply don’t do it (and don’t fall back on the safe and bland, either). Trying to leverage Western brand values in an Asian market is hard enough when you are willing to dial up and dial down certain aspects to ensure local market fit.
Another challenge to bear in mind is the huge importance of social media when it comes to identifying and guiding public opinion of a campaign in China. Even the oldest, least tech-savvy consumers are highly likely to be on WeChat, while Weibo and other more openly accessible social platforms hold the fashion influencers and commentators that can make or break a campaign – or in Burberry’s case, accuse it of showing “a family plotting to kill their rich grandma and fight over the inheritance”.
So while Twitter commentary in the West is an important issue for brands, the social media response has to be one of the first things for them to consider when it comes to acceptance in China. Ramp up the social listening.
Admittedly, none of this is an easy challenge to navigate. Brands like Dolce & Gabbana have failed spectacularly and publicly in recent years, in that particular case leading to a public apology on Weibo and immense, long-term damage to the brand with Chinese consumers across the globe, while Burberry itself has already been on the wrong end of public opinion in China after the ‘Fu scarf’ debacle a few years ago.
Where campaigns have succeeded, they’ve understood the Chinese market both from the point of its long-held traditions as well as its most recent zeitgeist. That means due diligence, avoiding the sweeping generalizations, and ensuring that any approach is bold, fresh and backed up by a genuine understanding of what Chinese consumers want to see.
Jonathan Smith is the chief executive of Hot Pot.