How to Avoid a PR Disaster in China?

Dolce & Gabbana’s The Great Show was cancelled due to their PR disaster

Dolce & Gabbana’s PR disaster in China and North East Asia

It was to be an epic fashion show unlike any other. 500 looks, a Hollywood-calibre production, the ultimate East meets West extravaganza where Dolce & Gabbana take Shanghai.

The multi million euro event, which has taken months to plan, was unceremoniously canceled after a backlash to a series of D&G ads of which users accused the Italian brand of harbouring Chinese stereotypes.

While it was no doubt intended to be tongue in cheek, a brand the size of Dolce should know when to exercise humour and when to err on the side of caution.

D&G ads on social media

The controversial ads depict a beautiful Chinese woman, bedazzled in D&G jewellery, using chopsticks to eat pizza, spaghetti, and an oversized pastry called cannoli.

She awkwardly struggles at times, reports Quartz, and in the cannoli video the narrator asks the giggling actress in Chinese, “Is it too huge for you?”

Dolce & Gabbana labelled the series “Eating with Chopsticks,” and tagged each of the ads with #DGLovesChina and #DGTheGreatShow.

Obvious, this was going to spark an outrage. Diet Prada, the fashion industry watchdog on Instagram, was quick to call out the brand for its “offensive videos on the usage of chopsticks and false stereotype of a people lacking refinement to understand how to eat foreign foods.”

This advertisement also further explained as sex symbolized content. Such as they write in their Chinese Weibo and describe chopsticks as “small little stick” and emphasize the huge “size” of the Italian Cannoli.

Moreover, they mentioned that you will feel like in Italy not in China. They thought they want to catch the eye of those consumers who love western culture. But they forgot not to offend their cultural identity. 

Soon, the public in nations use chopsticks as tableware such as Japan and South Korea are join with Chinese audiences to accuse Dolce & Gabbana of its cultural discrimination advertisement. 

Furthermore, Stefano Gabbana appeared to have posted offensive comments and direct messages at several Chinese critics, messages which were screenshot and also published by Diet Prada.

Stefano’s posts were later deleted and captioned ‘hacked’ and ‘not me’ but the damage had already been done. All Chinese celebrities and models have quit the show.

The #DGTheGreatShow was officially cancelled with a new hashtag appearing; screenshot.

A social media backlash

Social media and fashion industry websites accused the ads of being outdated, insensitive, and by some, racist, and disrespectful to women.

Dolce & Gabbana deleted the ads on Weibo and Instagram, with a message expressing gratitude to their friends and guests, who were let down, but with no apologies for the content of its ads.

But the Chinese public did not think they realize how serious their problem is. They are trashing the cultural identity of another country basically like saying to their consumers: “our culture is superior to yours”. 

Chinese consumers and online retailers are boycott D&G products.  

Not the first D&G controversy

This isn’t the first public relations fiasco for Dolce & Gabbana in China.

D&G twits Walking, talking and shooting in the streets of Beijing #

In April last year, D&G offended the Chinese after an advertising campaign shot in Beijing featured only run-down and old neighbourhoods, eschewing the modern landscape the city is keen to promote.

After a public outcry, the images from its Beijing advertising campaign were removed from Dolce & Gabbana’s official Weibo account but a boycott for its products is still circulating on social media.

The situation highlights some of the challenges international brands face as they try to market to Chinese shoppers and do more business in the country. “Western brands seeking to enter and expand in China should be aware of Chinese cultural sensibilities,” Angelica Cheung, the editor-in-chief of Vogue China, told WWD.

“Instead of dictating everything from head office, they would gain a lot from listening to the opinions and insights of their Chinese teams.”

Dolce & Gabbana, a history of PR disasters

#BoycottDolceGabbana 2015

One of the brand’s most memorable PR disasters happened in 2015 when the design duo was interviewed by an Italian magazine, Panorama. In it, they declared their opposition to gay couples adopting children or using IVF.

Gabbana said, “I call children of chemistry synthetic children: Rented uterus, semen chosen from a catalogue. The family is not a fad. In it there is a supernatural sense of belonging.”

High profile celebrities, including Elton John and Glee executive producer Ryan Murphy, responded to boycott the brand, not least because Mr Dolce and Mr Gabbana are themselves gay too, but mostly for the brand’s narrow-mindedness in an age of tolerance and inclusivity.

#BoycottDolceGabbana 2012

In 2012, a Facebook-organized protest of D&G in Hong Kong was spurred after a security guard prevented locals from taking photographs outside of its flagship in Tsim Sha Tsui.

The man in question was told by a security guard that only mainland Chinese or foreign tourists were allowed to take photos outside the store, a story which broke on Jing Daily. Again, racism was cited at its roots.

Tax evasion

As far back as 2011 Dolce & Gabbana were charged with tax fraud, a grey cloud that hung over the silver-lined brand for several years.

In 2013 the pair was fined 343 million euros for tax evasion after they “funnelled their company’s profits through a holding company in Luxembourg to avoid paying Italy’s corporate tax rate,” according to Tax Back.

There is a lesson for luxury brands

Luxury brands cannot afford to be tone-deaf. Fighting a branding crisis in the world’s largest luxury market is no picnic, but thus far D&G have failed to be authentically apologetic.

The company would do well to acknowledge its mistakes and listen to its customers and social media commentary.

The pseudo-apology issued by D&G about their account being hacked was an unsatisfactory response to most users. One commented: “As a big brand, you guys still fail to make a sincere apology after all these days.

China has risen, and it’s no longer a place for you to simply take our money and leave without showing respect.” Another commented: “Please go away from the China market, we don’t welcome you.”

Mostly users posted poop emojis, referencing the alleged conversation in which Gabbana used the same emojis to describe China, as posted by Diet Prada.

The furor will inevitably die down, but as China is responsible for a third of global luxury spending, no brand, big or small, can afford to be tone-deaf, let alone risk a boycott of its products.

How could this situation be handled?

Whilst every crisis is different, there are a number of important steps that must be taken to effectively manage that crisis.

In the case of D&G, it would appear that not only had Messrs Dolce and Gabbana failed to be effectively briefed and prepped ahead of their apology message, but they also allowed Mr Gabbana to be the veritable loose cannon and go off plan – if there was a plan at all.

So what should have been done?

Update your image about the target market: It is a changing world. If a brand does not update their understanding of the target market, they will start to lose their customers and will be replaced by competitors.  

Be aware of cultural differences: China is a collective society. People are proud of their tradition and culture. Be aware of the cultural differences and avoid offend consumers. Hire a reliable team which familiar with the culture of target consumers. 

Appoint a media spokesperson: Decide who will act as the mouthpiece of the organisation and agree that they alone will be responsible for any media commentary – social, broadcast, print.

Respond: Plan and prepare an effective response that seeks to demonstrate an understanding of the criticism and is not – as was the case here – someone on the defensive.

Time the response: Knee-jerk reactions, as demonstrated by Gabbana’s ‘fascist’ comment, often back-fire. Agree on the stance to be taken and make sure those that matter know what should be said and more importantly, what they should avoid saying.

Assume the worst possible outcome: Seek sound PR and legal advice – get your facts straight and ensure your internal teams know the company’s response.

Prepare for a second wave of attack: Look to see if there are any other skeletons that could come out of the closet that could damage the brand or reputation.

Tell it first, tell it fast: Establish the truth;decide how the story should be told and don’t allow it to seep out bit by ever-increasingly-damaging bit.

Say sorry: Say it often – the ‘No comment’ response can be more damaging.

At time of writing, D&G’s Instagram account has remained dormant since the day of #BoycottDolceGabbana campaign. Although they took done the message on their Instagram and put an apology, but the damage cannot be undone.  

Emotional response can be damaging to your brand, but silence can kill it dead.

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