Talking Point

Dolce & ‘gone China’

A case study in how to blow-up a brand in the Chinese market

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Dolce & Gabbana: no longer in favour in China after a chopsticks, cannoli and faeces faux pas

Dolce & Gabbana has form when it comes to causing a fuss in China.

One notable blunder happened in January 2012 at D&G’s flagship store in Hong Kong, following claims that the retailer would prevent the locals – but not mainland Chinese tourists – from taking photos of its window displays.

Footage from a local newspaper seemed to confirm it, showing a security guard trying to block a reporter’s camera and threatening to smash it.

The news saw hundreds of Hongkongers descend on the D&G store to protest against perceived discrimination (see WiC136). On social media they rebranded the Italian fashion house as “D&豬” (the Chinese character zhu means ‘pig’ but sounds similar to the English letter ‘G’ in Cantonese). ­

Initially D&G refused to apologise, insisting that it hadn’t asked property management staff at the store to impose the photo ban. After the outlet had been besieged for nearly two weeks it relented, however, publishing a statement recognising that the situation had “offended the citizens of Hong Kong” and saying that it was “truly sorry”.

Unfortunately the luxury brand’s co-founder Stefano Gabbana and his marketing team don’t seem to have learned much from the episode. Last week D&G found itself grabbing all the wrong headlines again – this time on allegations of racism. In a matter of a few days the Milan-based firm alienated millions of consumers in its most important international market and saw its products removed from e-commerce sites and department stores.

What was the background to the blow-up?

Fashion lovers were awaiting D&G’s “The Great Show” event – scheduled for November 21 in Shanghai. The timing looked excellent: China had just hosted its inaugural import expo (see WiC431) to showcase the local appetite for foreign goods and D&G was treading the same path as other fashion brands such as Victoria’s Secret and Tommy Hilfiger, which have staged extravagant runway shows in China.

D&G had held flagship shows in Hong Kong and Beijing in the past two years but it had promised the Shanghai event would be something of a different magnitude. The catwalk was supposed to feature more than 350 models and at least 500 outfits. Hundreds of celebrities had been invited too, with D&G’s founders Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana launching a brand new collection and “paying tribute to Chinese art and culture”, reported FashionNetwork, an industry website.

What went wrong?

The public relations debacle began on November 18 after D&G published a now-deleted post both on Sina Weibo and Instagram promoting its “Great Show”.

Marked with the hashtag ‘#DGLovesChina”, it featured three short films in which a young Chinese-looking model in a red D&G dress tries to eat pizza, pasta and cannoli. She makes a very bad job of it: the reason being that she’s using chopsticks.

Presumably the videos were intended to highlight the label’s effort to respond to cultural differences as it tailors its offerings to meet Chinese tastes.

But instead the videos alienated much of its Chinese audience, which didn’t like the way that the narrator deliberately mispronounced “Dolce and Gabbana” and objected to what it regarded as stereotypes in the footage (such as the model’s tiny eyes).

Many felt D&G was mocking the Chinese and their culture. They took umbrage at scenes showing the model feeding clumsily on pizza or pasta with a silly smile, as the narrator referred to chopsticks as “a small stick” but called Italian food “great and traditional”.

Female viewers seemed particularly offended by the cannoli episode of the promotional series, with the narrator asking the Asian model “is it too huge for you?” of the pastry.

And then Stefano weighs in…

The commercial sparked an immediate outcry from Chinese social media. Thousands of internet users scaled the Great Firewall to shoot angry comments onto D&G’s account on Instagram, a platform that is banned in China.

Some tried to send private messages to Stefano Gabbana. Worse, a screenshot of what appeared to be a derogatory comment by the outspoken designer began to go viral on social media as well.

“It [the video] was deleted from Chinese social media. My office is as stupid as the superiority of the Chinese,” D&G’s co-founder was shown to have written in a leaked Instagram exchange, before using the phrase “ignorant dirty-smelling mafia” and applying the ‘smiling poo’ emoji to describe the Chinese market.

“We will live very well without you,” the response from Gabbana is alleged to have continued. “Hahahahahahahahah…”

The designer quickly denied authoring the comments and said that his account had been hacked.

But that was never going to end the controversy, with few Chinese believing the hacking claim.

Not the first time?

Gabbana has been outspoken on Instagram before, calling the Kardashians “the cheapest family ever” and getting involved in a war of words with Elton John over gay parenting that saw the British singer organise a boycott from other celebrities.

Besides the 2012 fiasco in Hong Kong, another of its “D&G Loves China” marketing campaigns prompted a public relations spat last year, when netizens overran the brand’s weibo and WeChat accounts with complaints that D&G had deliberately photographed impoverished residents in Beijing to make their own models look more stylish.

That online backlash forced it to delete the offending photos from its Chinese social media platforms.

But a much more punitive reaction this time around?

Gabbana’s track record meant that large numbers of Chinese believed that the widely forwarded Instagram conversation, in which China is described as a country of ‘shit’, was genuine.

According to ThePaper.cn, the derogatory remarks were further proof that D&G was being arrogant and unapologetic.

The company’s PR department stuck with the hacking line, however. “Our legal office is urgently investigating. We are very sorry for any distress caused by these unauthorised posts. We have nothing but respect for China and the people of China,” its statement read.

Gabbana also reposted the screenshot in question with two supersized English words “Not Me”.

But his denial only stoked the controversy further. The “Not Me” image became the most forwarded internet meme last week. Lots of people printed it out and took selfies with it in front of D&G’s stores in China. Some simply stuck copies of it on the store’s windows.

For two days in a row, nine out of the top 10 search keywords on Sina Weibo were related to D&G, with many calling on consumers from China to boycott the Italian clothing firm.

Time for crisis management?

Already under pressure to prove their patriotic credentials in the wake of starlet Fan Bingbing’s tax debacle (see WiC427), Chinese celebrities were some of the first to answer the calls to ostracise D&G. One by one, the stars – who were scheduled to attend the fashion show in Shanghai – announced that they had deleted it from their diaries.

Actress Zhang Ziyi, for one, posted a message online that she wouldn’t buy anything from D&G ever again, together with a cartoon image showing someone in a Panda-costume slamming something into a foreigner’s mouth.

“You’ve dropped your shit, I’m returning it to you” was the accompanying caption in a post that quickly got half a million ‘likes’.

With almost all the Chinese models pulling out of the D&G event as well, the show was cancelled just hours before it was scheduled to take place.

Joining the protest, many of the leading Chinese e-commerce firms, including Alibaba’s Tmall and Suning (which owns Italian football club Inter Milan) announced that they would be dropping all D&G’s products from their sites as well. E-commerce platform Ymatou followed suit, taking down 58,000 D&G products, and saying that “the Motherland is more important than anything else”.

Commercial landlords were soon threatening to kick D&G’s stores out of their malls as well. Hong Kong department store Lane Crawford – a unit of Wharf, the owner of the Harbour City mall where there were problems in 2012 for the brand – followed suit, removing D&G products from its shelves.

Realising that its reputation was in meltdown, D&G begged for another chance. “In the face of our cultural misunderstanding, we hope that we can earn your forgiveness,” Domenico Dolce said in a video published last Friday, with Gabbana seated solemnly by his side.

“We will never forget this experience and its lesson, and this sort of thing will never happen again,” Gabbana also promised, before the two men finished the film by saying sorry in Mandarin.

The moral of the story?

As expected the apology also went viral in China but most of the responses were starkly unforgiving. “You are saying sorry not to the Chinese renmin [people] but to the Chinese renminbi,” was one of the most popular remarks. “Go and make money in other countries. We will live very well without you.”

D&G runs about 40 retail outlets in China including stores and shops-within-shops. According to local media reports, Chinese buyers made up more than 30% of the fashion house’s revenues in 2016 and the share is likely to have increased since then because of its extensive promotional efforts over the last couple of years.

The luxury brand is not alone in running into reputational damage. Earlier this year Balenciaga was mired in accusations of racism when Chinese shoppers were manhandled in a Paris store and told to leave. Again there were calls for a boycott (see WiC408).

Last year Victoria’s Secret hosted one of its biggest shows in Shanghai but two of the invitees – singer Katy Perry and supermodel Gigi Hadid – were both denied visas and couldn’t attend (see WiC389). Perry’s problem was said to relate to wearing a Taiwan flag at a concert, while Hadid didn’t make any friends with a video in which she had squinted in a manner also deemed racist by China’s netizens.

Each of these cases underscores a problem for foreign brands trying to get more of a foothold in the world’s second biggest economy. “Don’t mess with China and its growing cadre of powerful luxury consumers” was how an article in the Associated Press put it, and Wallstreet.cn, a local news source, warned that D&G risked becoming “the next Lotte” – South Korea’s largest department store chain was forced out of China last year after a backlash triggered by the deployment of an American missile defence system on company land.

If anything, China’s consumers seem to be getting even more sensitive to perceived slights and injustices, with the state-run broadcaster CCTV noting an increasing number of occasions in which patriots have pushed back against cases deemed as “anti-China” or “an insult to China and the Chinese people”.

For instance, a tourist row in Sweden in September also provoked calls to avoid holidaying in the Nordic country (see WiC425).

Some of that angry mood is probably down to the relative ease of mobilising an army of outraged sentiment on social media. In contrast, the Chinese government has generally been cautious about fanning the nationalistic mood too far. It was keen to suppress the anti-Japanese street protests that flared up in 2014 over territorial disputes (see WiC245), for instance. And so far Beijing has refrained from encouraging a boycott of American businesses amid the bitter trade war with Washington.

Indeed, rather surprisingly, the usually thundersome Global Times opted to speak up for D&G in the most recent case of bash-the-foreigner. Although he was hardly fulsome in his defence of the Italian brand, Hu Xijin, the newspaper’s voluble editor-in-chief posted on his personal media accounts that he didn’t believe that D&G had the motive to insult the Chinese on a national level. “It only shows that the marketing of D&G is really clumsy. Either they don’t understand China or they are too full of themselves,” he wrote of the case. “Either their Chinese staff have no say in the company, or they are incapable people who are only there to take foreigners’ money.”

“Clumsy” or not, it will be a daring celebrity that dons D&G in China anytime soon…


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