Pedestrians walk past a boutique store of Dolce & Gabbana at a shopping mall in Beijing, China, 23 November 2018.Photo: AFP Forum
Pedestrians walk past a boutique store of Dolce & Gabbana at a shopping mall in Beijing, China, 23 November 2018. Photo: AFP Forum

The fallout from Italian luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana’s (D&G) television ad that aired in China depicting a Chinese woman struggling to use chopsticks to eat pizza and pasta is still being assessed.

The culturally inappropriate creative campaign sparked an immediate and angry reaction from Chinese consumers. And co-founder and creative director Stefano Gabbana’s initial response on social media further aggravated the situation, resulting in the international fashion house’s cancellation of its planned runaway extravaganza in Shanghai, and most of China’s e-commerce giants removing D&G products from their sites in protest.

Global brands that launched ad campaigns that were more controversial than promotional have stumbled before. H&M had to shut down South African stores after promoting a sweatshirt with the graphic tag, “the coolest monkey in the jungle” being worn by a black child model. Its response, however, was as swift as consumers’ and diversity advocates’ ire, and came in the form of an immediate apology and removal of the product along with an internal review of its diversity and inclusion policies.

D&G’s failure stems from a lack of awareness in the fact that Chinese consumers take great pride in the centuries-long history of the Middle Kingdom. Chopsticks are as Chinese it gets, and suggesting the eating utensils are inferior to Western knives and forks touched a nerve and provoked a very strong emotional reaction from Chinese consumers.

Any brand that attempts to present itself as superior risks alienating its audience and upsetting the very customers they are trying to court. At the end of the day, fashion is emotional and should be a vehicle to support a positive dialogue among people of different races and backgrounds. It is this engagement which helps brand identity grow and keep their followers.

Too often global brands, when entering a new market, ignore the very powerful emotional connection advertising can create; or, as in the case of D&G, the leadership mistakenly overlooked the importance of cultural sensitivity.

Due to the speed of social media, which knows no borders, a small, local misstep can become a global snafu. Therefore, it’s imperative that brands incorporate cultural sensitivity at their core. Only when cultural sensitivity is practiced from top down, not bottom up, can companies truly become integrated into the global marketplace.

Successful brands learn from their failures. When a Starbucks barista showed hostility to an African American customer in Philadelphia, the chain responded immediately and announced it would shutter all US stores for an entire day to provide staff with cultural sensitivity training.

While Starbucks swiftly repaired the damage by apologizing publicly and backing up its response with action, D&G did the opposite. The fashion house remained silent for a few days, allowing social media to go wild in reaction to its ad.

The company’s initial response was to claim a hacking, which was met with skepticism, then came an apology statement. When these strategies failed to contain the backlash, D&G finally tried a direct appeal from its co-founders who declared their love for China.

Whether D&G loves China is not as important as what it seems to be lacking compared with Starbucks – ownership of problems and the attitude to change it. Successful brands must not only talk the talk, but walk the walk, and when they make a mistake, respond immediately to repair the damage.

Today’s consumers are savvy, aware and connected, and increasingly demonstrate their purchasing power by choosing to buy – or boycott – brands which do not share their values. Only time will tell if D&G can recover from the damage the China-poking ad has done to its reputation.

Mei Xu is a Chinese American entrepreneur, woman business leader and the founder and CEO of two global lifestyle brands, Chesapeake Bay Candle and Blissliving Home

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