Fashion giant strikes out again in China

Lessons from the social commerce frontiers

In a year when movies such as Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before have been lauded for their Asian leads and story lines, the latest misstep by Dolce & Gabbana in its efforts to woo the China market is particularly conspicuous.

At a time when social media networks, instantaneous communication, and Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) have all combined to amplify brand communication wins and fails, this was a bewildering blunder with very real financial consequences.  It also offers a dramatic real-world example of why brand communications should ideally occur in a collaborative ecosystem involving stakeholders from creative, marketing, PR, and regulatory affairs / legal, and this should include contributors with current on-the-ground market insights and understanding.   

The most recent storm erupted when the luxury designers chose to promote their multi-million dollar Shanghai fashion show with three videos entitled ‘Eating with Chopsticks’.  (We would provide a link to the videos, but they keep being removed from online channels).  Suffice to say the combination of intentional mispronunciations, inane giggling, kitsch folk music, and a model unsuccessfully attempting to eat pizza, cannoli and spaghetti with chopsticks, did not go down well with Chinese consumers.  The videos launched in the slowly fading wake of another D&G campaign in 2017 which was critiqued for appearing to depict China as stereotypically backwards and poor. It served as the context for this latest instalment, at a time when China is at the forefront of the technology/retail interface for consumer experience.    

Just as it seemed we had reached the nadir of D&G’s latest campaign, after being allegedly hacked by third parties, Stefano Gabbana’s verified Instagram account weighed into the debacle, posting highly pejorative comments about China.  It was all too much for netizens, who have flooded social media with memes galore.  It also led to the Cultural and Tourism Department ordering the cancellation of the Shanghai fashion show, after many high-profile models and celebrities cancelled appearances and pulled endorsements en masse.  Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site similar to Twitter, saw numerous posters requesting government organizations to ban or investigate complaints into the brand.  D&G posted additional security to key boutiques in Shanghai in anticipation of potentially hostile reactions.  Perhaps most immediately damaging, several Chinese e-commerce sites have also delisted D&G products, including Kaola, Secoo, Yoox, Net-a-Porter, Alibaba, and JD.com. 

China by some estimates currently accounts for a third of all global luxury goods spend, and is projected to hit 46% by 2025.  For China’s mobile-first consumer base, digital media (social and video), are the primary channels for engagement.  In addition, research from major ‘shopping festivals’ such as Singles Day indicates that KOLs have inordinate influence in driving consumer brand preferences in China, potentially wielding two to four times the influence of KOLs in the US, Japan, UK, France or Germany.  This has all combined to make many luxury brands’ social media plays a high stakes pursuit in the Chinese market. 

In this environment, concept ideation, finalization, and execution must be a collaborative exercise that at the very least prepares for the possible challenges and risks that could arise, and that properly assesses how a concept will be perceived in-market.  Even better than preparing for gnarly contingencies would be to invest in detailed, yet commercial and flexible, processes for cross-functional collaboration around concept finalization and execution.  Given the fundamental ways in which consumer goods brand communications ties into corporate/shareholder value, regulatory risks, and the ultimate viability of a product, it is crucial for brand owners to ensure earlier and broader internal engagement on what stories they tell about their brands and how they choose to communicate them. 

This article was first published in our Media, Advertising and Digital Newsletter in December 2018.