The scenes of mass protest in Hong Kong have been difficult to escape over the last few months. The protests, largely among younger ‘Hong Kongers’, have continued to rage since June 2019.
Demonstrators are concerned about China dialling up control in the region and the general feeling is an anti-Chinese one. This is a complex, historic and ongoing social and political issue that isn’t going away in a hurry. Unfortunately, marketers for many major brands selling products in China have lacked diplomacy to the extent that Chinese and in some cases Hong Kong-based consumers are shunning their products.
Here, we look at some of the brands and campaigns that have fallen extremely wide of the mark when it comes to sensitive treatment of the dispute, particularly from a Chinese perspective. If you’re considering expanding into the region, let their failures be a lesson to you.
As language translation and localisation experts, we take exceptional care when it comes to cultural considerations – this is a communication issue but it’s about so much more than ‘just’ language.
On the flipside, we will also look more closely at what young Chinese consumers are now looking for from the brands they seek out – as this might surprise you.
The brands that have got it wrong
Some of the biggest brands in the world have fallen at the first hurdle when it comes to the ongoing Hong Kong/China dispute. Below are the details of the campaigns and products that have come under fire.
Apple listed an app called HKmap.live on its App Store, which allowed Hong Kong protestors to track police activity and locations where protestors had been injured. The decision to allow the app on the App Store was a risky and controversial one and the Chinese Communist Party news outlet, The People’s Daily, responded: “By allowing its platform to clear the way for an app that incites illegal behaviour, [does Apple] not worry about damaging its reputation and hurting the feelings of consumers?”
All in all, a risky choice that could well see Chinese consumers lose trust in Apple and its products following the decision.
The luxury jewellery line was criticised by Chinese consumers after the brand released a marketing Tweet showing a model displaying a Tiffany ring by holding her hand up to obscure her eye. Critics in China claim the pose emulated the one adopted by Hong Kong protestors to highlight alleged police brutality in response to the protests.
One Chinese Twitter user explained: “I used to be your hardcore fan, but now I’m a Chinese first and foremost. I love my country and I won’t allow her to receive any defamation or violation.”
Tiffany responded by apologising and removing the image.
The Hong Kong flag-carrying airline has felt China’s economic might in recent months after it was ‘forced’ by the country’s aviation regulator to sack staff members who were sympathetic to the Hong Kong protesters’ cause. As a result, staff now report a ‘culture of terror’ and 30 staff have lost their jobs, together with the CEO and chairman.
Then there are several brands that have either come under fire from the Hong Kong side or from both. These examples show how difficult it is for brands to get it right when it comes to appreciating how strong the feelings are and how volatile the situation is; one wrong move and a business can potentially lose an entire nation’s commercial interest.
The US-based National Basketball Association (NBA) has come under fire from both sides of the argument. Initially, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted that he was in support of the protestors in Hong Kong.
After condemnation from China, NBA star LeBron James went on the defence, tweeting: “[Morey] wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke. So many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually.”
This, in turn caused outrage among basketball fans in Hong Kong who responded by burning James’ image. However, critics in the US also claim that James was financially driven to ‘kowtow’ to the Chinese Communist leaders.
The fashionable footwear brand held a design competition, which resulted in it having to ban an entry that featured images from the protests. After the decision to ban the design was made public, Hong Kong youths called for a boycott of the brand, launching the hashtag #boycottvans.
Tiffany Can’t Win…
After the luxury brand announced it was to withdraw the offending eye-covering image, detailed earlier, it came under fire from Hong Kongers, claiming the brand was putting money above ethics by taking the image down.
It seems that once a mistake is made, it is extremely difficult for brands to dig themselves out of a hole without going on to offend both sides of the dispute.
How can brands avoid making these kinds of mistakes?
The right level of on-the-ground localisation expertise could have enabled these brands to, if not avoid these issues, then at least to foresee them. For example, Vans could have predicted politically charged entries to its design competition, especially in light of its popularity in Asia, and considered in advance how it would deal with such a situation.
If the marketing team at Tiffany had employed localisation experts in China who were aware of how toxic and sensitive the situation is, they may have reviewed their use of the eye-covering image.
A recent study by Chinese communications agency WE Red Bridge has exposed some changes to what young Chinese consumers consider to be important when choosing brands to support.
The study shows that Chinese consumers do consider ethics and social responsibility to be important in the brands they shop with, but their priority is for businesses to have a local focus and to hold China’s development in high regard.
WE Red Bridge’s head of corporate and healthcare, Maho Saito, explained: “More than ever, companies must define their role in China, for China, if they hope for long-term customer loyalty.”
In conclusion, for many UK businesses, China is an enormous untapped market. With its growing middle class and increasingly consumer-driven culture, there’s money to be made by brands that can show that they understand Chinese nationalism and can fit into the country’s culture.
But failing to appreciate and understand the importance of major politically and cultural disputes, such as that with Hong Kong, is a quick route to failure. Using localisation services with native-speaking translation professionals is the only way to fully immerse your brand in the Chinese market.