Painful lessons in intercultural communication

Dominik Pietzcker
By listing on its global corporate website Taiwan as a country, luxury fashion brand Bvlgari recently provoked a massive storm of indignation among Chinese netizens.
Dominik Pietzcker
Painful lessons in intercultural communication
Dominik Pietzcker / SHINE

A Bvlgari outlet at Plaza 66, Jing'an District, Shanghai

When European consumer brands want to succeed in markets culturally different from their own, they should adapt as smoothly as possible to the different historical, social and political framework abroad.

Intercultural communication, meaning a deeper understanding of the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of other countries and their cultures, is simply a necessity – not only for academics or diplomats, but also for business representatives and, particularly, marketeers. How could you successfully promote a brand and its products without knowing the values and taboos, social codes, preferences and emotions of your potential consumers?

Unfortunately, Western brands and advertisers have a long record of intercultural misunderstandings, particularly in China. In November 2018, Italian fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana raised a storm of indignation when it launched an advertising campaign showing Chinese models struggling with chopsticks to eat Italian food. The campaign received an icy wave of criticism and was blamed as racist toward the Chinese community.

In other words, the advertising campaign hurt the feelings of the consumers it wanted to persuade. How absurd! What was meant as ironical or humorous turned out to be understood as high-browed, arrogant and self-righteous. Some disrespectful and derogatory comments by co-founder Stefano Gabbana on social media made things even worse.

Although the company apologized publicly, Dolce & Gabbana had to cancel its planned Shanghai fashion show and lost estimated US$80 million in the Chinese market. A very costly mistake.

But yes, why should Chinese consumers buy clothes, cosmetics and jewelry from brands that seem to make fun of them? Particularly luxury goods satisfy the desire of social status, prestige and personal distinction. With advertisements publicly criticized as unfriendly, disrespectful or even racist, the stratagem of high consumption inevitably fails. Today, Dolce & Gabbana is back on the Chinese market, though on a much lower level then before 2018. The Internet never forgets and seldom forgives – neither netizens do.

German luxury car producer Mercedes-Benz also had to learn the hard way that global communication bears new challenges for marketing executives and professional communicators. In 2018, Mercedes-Benz prominently published on its official corporate website a quote by the Dalai Lama, an anti-China separatist. Meant as a smart quotation – corporations love to be seemingly both, successful and wise – the whole affair ended rather undramatically with a public apology by then CEO, Dr Jürgen Zetsche.

The quote disappeared within days from the website. By reacting quickly, Mercedes-Benz could avoid further damage of its brand image in the Chinese market. Today, probably no one of the numerous drivers of Mercedes cars in Shanghai would remember the incident, although the details still can be found on the Internet.

Italian jewelry brand Bvlgari, owned by French luxury group LVMH, stands last in line of schoolbook examples in intercultural negligence. By listing on its global corporate website Taiwan as a country, Bvlgari recently provoked a massive storm of indignation among Chinese netizens. The incident made it even to the headlines of leading Chinese newspapers, and Bvlgari had to apologize officially. A Chinese netizen commented sarcastically: "Your keyboard can type Macau, China and Hong Kong, China, but not Taiwan, China?"

Hard to imagine that LVMH, the leading global luxury group, would be unaware of China's stance toward Taiwan. Ignorance is a very weak excuse, anyway, when it comes to intercultural misunderstandings. In order to be accurately informed about the Taiwan issue, seen from a Chinese mainland perspective, it would not even have been necessary to deeply dive into Chinese history.

All that Bvlgari marketeers should have been doing is simply to keep in mind the ideas of French President Emmanuel Macron, expressed during his state visit to China in April this year: "Is it in our interest to accelerate a crisis on Taiwan? No. The worse thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the US agenda (…)." Like the European countries, Macron told, "the Chinese are also concerned about their unity and Taiwan, from their point of view, is a component of it."

Competition between luxury brands is particularly reckless, as the profit margins are extremely high. Mistakes in communication are dangerous, and instantaneously damaging, as they bear the potential of a true corporate crisis and a loss of public trust. Particularly consumers of luxury goods are very sensitive toward the public reputation of their preferred brands.

No one wants to be involved in an open scandal or be criticized for a blemished image. Nowadays, Chinese consumers of luxury goods have the choice, and they can easily opt for Chinese premium and luxury brands like Icicle and Erdos, Wensli and Shang Xia, Shiatzy Chen and Qeelin.

Marketeers are no historians nor diplomats. Yet, one could expect at least a decent understanding of the culture and heritage, social and political taboos of their target markets. Bvlgari's latest faux pas proves again that Europeans in business (but sadly also in academia and politics) still have difficulties basically understanding the logics of non-European countries and cultures. Therefore, it is only a question of time until the next incident of intercultural misunderstanding will raise questions that are difficult to answer.

(The author is a professor at Macromedia University of Applied Sciences in Germany and a visiting professor of European studies at Shanghai International Studies University.)

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