Chelsea's Brazilian star Kenedy was sent home from China last month after causing a social media storm because of comments he posted with a photo of a sleeping security guard. Photo: AFP/ Ben Stansall
Chelsea's Brazilian star Kenedy was sent home from China last month after causing a social media storm because of comments he posted with a photo of a sleeping security guard. Photo: AFP/ Ben Stansall

With England’s top-flight football set to kick off on August 12, perhaps no club is more ready to get the ball rolling than Chelsea FC whose promotional tour in China last month descended into damage control and revealed how quickly online sentiment can swing against foreign brands.

Chelsea staged its preseason in China for the first time since 2008, but the trip made headlines for the wrong reasons on July 21 when a player posted two Instagram posts that raised the ire of the Chinese online community.

One of the posts from 21-year old Robert Kenedy Nunes do Nascimento, who is known as Kenedy, featured a photo of a sleeping security guard with a caption in Portuguese that said “Wake up China, you idiot.”

Kenedy said he was sorry the next day and Chelsea issued an apology in both English and Chinese on July 23. However, hit with a severe backlash, club manager Antonio Conte confirmed two days later that the player had been removed from the tour and sent back to the United Kingdom as punishment.

“The damage was only short-term and is certainly not irreparable,” said David Hornby, head of sports at Shanghai-based digital marketing agency Mailman. “However, this was clearly not how Chelsea would have wanted to end their first visit to China in several years.”

Chelsea set off for China with high hopes of building its Asian fan base and billed the trip as a “Tour of the Champions” after winning the English league last season. The fact that a fringe player could turn everything sideways with just a few taps on his phone shows what a tightrope foreign organizations need to balance on when courting the Chinese online community.

Club’s brand value tops $1 billion

This example also shows how even the most influential organizations can run afoul of public opinion in China. Chelsea’s brand is worth $1.2 billion, fourth most in global football, and one out of four Chinese fans have watched their matches, according to Brand Finance. The club has even attained more Facebook likes than Starbucks and Nintendo combined.

Being an iconic brand did little to stem the tide of negative messages directed at both Kenedy and the club in the aftermath of the incident, however. The People’s Daily, an official mouthpiece for China’s Communist Party, published an editorial in Chinese that said Chelsea would henceforth be considered “persona non grata.”

Chelsea has put down roots in China, however, that should help it weather the storm. In 2009, it opened a football school in Hong Kong, its first in Asia, before later establishing an academy in Guangdong province in 2013 together with Chinese Super League’s Guangzhou R&F. Chelsea coaches also met with Chinese football officials during their visit last month to discuss how to continue growing the game at youth level.

“Continuing with these initiatives and promoting the club’s work at a grassroots level through their online website in China and across the various social media sites will help the club to repair the damage caused by Kenedy’s posts and ensure the Chelsea brand continues to grow in China,” said Finn Dowley, a sports analyst at Brand Finance.

Other foreign brands hit by public boycotts

Chelsea is just the latest foreign brand to be attacked by China’s online community. In April, Italian fashion designer Dolce & Gabbana was criticized on social media for presenting a denigrating view of China after posting staged photos of glamorous models standing next to everyday people at well-known Beijing landmarks including Tiananmen Square. 

South Korea’s Lotte Shopping has been another target after cooperating earlier this year with its government’s decision to deploy an anti-ballistic missile defense system designed by the US despite China’s fierce objections. Lotte’s operation in China has been subject to repeated online boycott petitions and temporary store suspensions ordered by local authorities. The company reported sales at its hypermarkets in China plunged 94.9% in the second quarter.

Chinese investors have also taken the fight to South Korea, dumping a net 1.2 trillion won ($1 billion) worth of stocks in the twelve months through June, according to local reports. South Korea’s benchmark Kospi index climbed more than 20% during that span.

Just as China’s online community can revolt against a foreign brand, it can also provide a valuable entry point to the country’s consumer markets. More than 60% of respondents in a recent survey on China from global data provider Kantar said social media helps them learn about new topics and expand their knowledge. One out of two people said social media enables them to make better purchasing decisions.

Cultivating a meaningful online presence in China is no easy feat, however. For one thing, foreign brands must adapt to China’s homegrown platforms like Weibo and WeChat since global giants like Facebook and Twitter are banned. The vast scale of the online community is another factor foreign brands have to accommodate, as there are more than 750 million active social media users in China, according to Hootsuite.

Ogilvy PR and CIC launched a white paper in 2013 that provided a roadmap for crisis management in the new era of China’s online community. The paper recommended brands tackle problems within eight hours, issue responses directly from senior leaders and partner with social media influencers to build a positive buzz.