Burberry fiasco another lesson for foreign labels

By Lilly Wong Source:Global Times Published: 2019/1/22 18:53:40


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Illustration: Liu Rui/GT



After Chinese netizens came down heavily on the "creepy" family portraits by Burberry, the luxury British goods giant quietly removed the ad from its latest WeChat campaign. 

Following incidents in which reputed labels like Balenciaga and Dolce&Gabbana found themselves in hot water, Burberry became another "tone-deaf instance of the Western luxury brand" in China. 

Shot and directed by famous American photographer Ethan James Green, Burberry's Chinese New Year campaign starred Chinese actress Zhao Wei and Zhou Dongyu. The advert, which aimed to celebrate family traditions and togetherness, spooked the Chinese who reacted to it like a "horror" film. It was way off the mark from portraying Chinese culture. 

Burberry's first-half profit in 2018 saw a 42 percent rise to $173 million. According to recent research by Morgan Stanley, Chinese nationals contributed around 40 percent to Burberry sales. Without doubt, Burberry or any other international luxury brand would not deliberately offend the Chinese, but they should consider hiring cultural consultants or at least do more research before launching a campaign in the future. 

Western brands have superficial understanding of Chinese culture. Chinese New Year, also called Spring Festival, is the most important celebration for family reunion in the calendar. Chinese people prefer to have a lucky start as a good omen for the rest of the year. 

Although the solo portraits of Zhou Dongyu and Zhaowei could display radical fashion, the use of gloomy tone and fading color in a family portrait conveys skepticism, melancholy, hatred, and even a sense of grieving in Chinese culture. That tone is a taboo for the Chinese New Year. 

Perhaps, models are not expected to express their opinion during the making of an ad. However, Zhao Wei or Zhou Dongyu should have foreseen the effects and pointed out the cultural anomaly, since they are regarded as the "cultural bridge" and brand ambassador of Burberry. The incident would certainly affect their reputation. 

There is extensive reporting in Western media about China's fast-paced development, but it seems Western brands still don't get it. With a growing economy, the Chinese are becoming more confident of their identity. They require more recognition from the world on both traditional and modern fronts. Notably, the mainstream spirit on the mainland has been turned into a cultural renaissance. 

Chinese are proud of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220) because they were the two most prosperous periods of the "Middle Kingdom" in history. In comparison, Chinese often have a somber impression of the latter period of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), since it was involved with colonization, corruption, and feudalism at the end of the era. For many, it was an old scar because China lost its sovereignty and independence, and the country's door was forced to open to the world. 

Therefore, when Western brands take elements from the Qing Dynasty to represent Chinese culture, it may cause consternation. Chinese may love to watch domestically made TV series about this era, however, they prefer that outsiders portray China as independent and modern. 

Moreover, non-mainland Chinese culture is different from that on the mainland. Western brands need to be very careful on with history and traditions when it comes to the mainland. Do not think that if you understand overseas Chinese community you understand the mainland. 

Early Chinese migrants to Western countries were mainly Cantonese. Cantonese culture, as part of Chinese tradition, cannot be representative of the entire Chinese culture which includes a variety of ethnic and provincial distinctions. You can call Cantonese food Chinese food, but you cannot say Chinese food is just Cantonese food.

Chinese migrants retained their tradition when they moved out of China but adapted to Western culture later. The longer they were out of China, the more the difference. A marketing campaign needs to take regional differences into account.  

Before incorporating Chinese elements into design, Western brands need to learn the underlying cultural meaning. It is necessary to avoid the use of elements which may cause misunderstanding. 

It is worth mentioning that young Chinese no longer blindly follow the fashion of South Korea, Japan and Western countries. The luxury market in China desires a more personalized, tailored design. The consumers want to wear something that helps them stand out and not copy others. 

Besides, many local designers are becoming more creative and standing tall on the world stage with the right use of Chinese elements.  


The author is a Beijing-based journalist. She lived in Sydney from 2014 to 2016. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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