Another day, another fashion label making localisation mistakes that cost them dearly. This time it’s Burberry who are in the limelight for all the wrong reasons.
A bit of background
Major international brands, no matter how big they are, are not immune to making major faux pas when going global. Effectively selling your brand in new overseas markets involves both careful and considered translation and localisation efforts, neither of which are easy to get right.
There’s a long history of brands focusing too much on translation alone. Language translation services are necessary to translate your marketing messages from English to other languages. However, the intricacies of both language and culture mean that it’s easy to make mistakes. This is where using native experts who understand localisation, context and marketing comes in.
A brand like Dolce & Gabbana have experienced both sides of the spectrum when it comes to marketing internationally. They have developed very effective digital marketing campaigns that work really well in markets all over the globe. However, they have also fallen foul of cultural mistakes that have led to major reputational damage in China, in particular.
Moving into markets such as China isn’t as straightforward as moving into other European markets, or other English-speaking markets, for example. China’s culture is so far removed from Western cultures in many ways that it takes serious levels of understanding and experience from the localisation experts you work with to ensure you are hitting the right notes and not causing offence, and this latest Burberry case illustrates this perfectly.
Burberry recently launched a targeted campaign in China to coincide with Chinese New Year. The campaign focused around photos by celebrated fashion photographer, Ethan James Green, which were then used on Burberry’s social media efforts in China.
Introducing our new collection, curated for #BurberryChineseNewYear
A portrait of togetherness, gathering the cross generations of family for a seasonal celebration. Starring #ZhaoWei and #ZhouDongyu; directed and photographed by @EthJGreen
— Burberry (@Burberry) January 3, 2019
Burberry’s Twitter account stated that the image was ‘A portrait of togetherness, gathering the cross generations of family for a seasonal celebration.’ Instead, it was read as ‘creepy’ by the Chinese audience, and it’s not that difficult to see why.
The family portrait shows several generations of a family gathered together around a matriarch. However, instead of smiling in each other’s company, the models and actors featured in the shot carry stony-faced glares and some stand over the small elderly matriarch in what has been read as a menacing way.
The image wouldn’t be so out of place in the fashion magazines read by Milanese and Parisian fashionistas, but this is China. Consumers aren’t necessarily familiar with this level of artful, austere, ultra-serious high-fashion photography and they’ve found it hard to understand and, in some cases, hard to stomach.
This is a visual demonstration of something we’ve discussed many times – the perils of direct, word for word translation.
Zhao Wei, one of the high-profile Chinese actors featured in the shoot stated: “The campaign draws on the concept of families reuniting for the most important holiday of the year, and represents a sense of belonging, but in a very fresh way.” However, this is not how the picture has been read by the Chinese public. It’s the fact that the serious expressions are so alien to what is normally seen in Chinese festive family shots that make it seem so disconcerting. The image makes people wonder: what is wrong with the family? what has happened? and even ‘are they going to kill the old lady?’.
Discussions on Chinese social media display a backlash that is bound to stir up a general feeling of resentment towards the Burberry brand that it will take some time and effort to shake off. One commenter stated: “Am I the only one to say pulling a long face does not go well with the Chinese New Year?” Another suggested: “What a creepy family portrait. It looks like a horror movie”.
What’s next for Burberry in China?
According to Morgan Stanley, some 40 per cent of Burberry sales come from Chinese consumers. This is a huge section of its market that it can’t afford to lose. The brand responded quickly to the social media fall-out from its Chinese New Year campaign and dropped some of the offending images, adding clarity with more hashtags and slightly warmer images.
It’s likely that Chinese consumers will forgive this major English brand for its lack of understanding when it comes to Chinese festivals this time – but we expect Burberry will be focusing more on its localisation efforts and not just translating a European high-fashion aesthetic in the future to make sure it doesn’t miss the mark again.