Even big brands get it wrong – 7 times Western brands made Chinese marketing mistakes

Every brand manager fears making a campaign error that wastes the budget and fails to achieve conversions. And certainly, when you’re a smaller brand competing against big incumbent competitors, a newer brand trying to get heard or a brand moving into a new and unfamiliar market, the risks are significant.

But big brands can get it wrong too. Even global behemoths with huge teams of experts, vast budgets and the systems, processes, knowledge and experience needed to get everything right the first time… in theory! Let’s take a closer look…

The Brands that Got It Wrong

1. Jo Malone

Only last year, Jo Malone – owned by Estee Lauder – found itself in the middle of a racism controversy, after it reskinned its original London Gent advert for release in China. The original advert was a lauded and highly personal art-directed piece by the British actor, John Boyega, featuring his personal memories of childhood and growing up. It won huge acclaim for its authenticity and diversity, and yet when the brand wanted to launch a similar advert in China, it simply replaced Boyega with Liu Haoran, copied the creative and removed all black actors from the second version; a move that caused an outcry and a huge backlash – across both markets – for the brand.

But other big brands have made similar errors and caused themselves vast amounts of damage in the process. Clumsy attempts to localise a brand are often a problem area. For example:

2. Burberry was criticised for attempting to print a Chinese character for ‘fortune’ onto the fabric of its trademarked scarves, and

3. Nike’s attempts to create a trainer design for China failed when customers complained that it looked cheap, crude… and like a counterfeit!


4. Stereotyping is another common fail. Burberry again found itself in hot water when it launched its Christmas campaign with the now-infamous #BurberryChineseNewYear Weibo hashtag – which was used heavily to criticise the luxury goods brand. The issue? The brand had featured a ‘traditional Chinese family celebrating the holiday season together – but without a single smile in evidence! Chinese users shared plenty of humour about the ‘ruthless family preparing to kill their Grandma and fight over her wealth’ and Burberry experienced a significant drop in sales and brand equity as a result.

5. Prada

Prada – another luxury brand that should have a captive audience in China – failed too when it launched an advert bathed in red. What it clearly thought was respect for a traditional Chinese colour backfired, with Chinese customers branding the advert creepy at best, clumsy at worst. Prada was also heavily criticised for using obvious cultural emblems – traditional outfits and square tables – in a way that younger Chinese customers felt were irrelevant and insulting.

6. Victoria’s Secret

Similar mistakes were made by Victoria’s Secret when they attempted to launch a Chinese product line of dragon-themed lingerie – complete with a blonde model sporting the range on the catwalk whilst draped in a large Chinese dragon puppet! The entire campaign was deemed to be tacky, out of touch and culturally insensitive.

7. Dior

And Dior was similarly criticised for cheapening its brand in an attempt to go ‘down to earth’. When marketing its latest desirable saddlebag, it launched a social media campaign that looked a little too like many other Chinese e-commerce brands. So much so, in fact, that Chinese customers derided it for looking like a low-budget promo campaign for a TaoBao store. Not exactly what the legendary fashion house was aiming for…

It’s Easy to Make Chinese Marketing Mistakes

Chinese culture is nuanced, localised, incredibly rich and complex and often difficult to decipher. This is a sophisticated and incredibly diverse audience with experience in international travel, knowledge of global trends, a taste for luxury consumption and a native’s knowledge of the digital world. Brands can easily get their campaigns wrong by using:

– Traditional Chinese symbols and visuals in a clumsy way that turns off sophisticated young Chinese customers (such as endless overuse of gold and red.)
– Failing to personalise and tailor marketing campaigns for specific Chinese groups (and very often, products too – recognising that Chinese customers want to express their individuality; unlike in the West where the ‘in’ bag is desired by many.)
– Using clumsy translation and failing to localise campaigns effectively
– Mis-using colours, symbols, images and words in a way that can inadvertently use offence (bearing in mind that the Chinese language and culture is highly nuanced and contextual)
– Making localisation efforts look cheap. Chinese customers are sophisticated global citizens and they understand great design!
– Using the wrong social media platforms for the target customer group (unlike in the West, where there are just a handful of main sites.)

Don’t waste your budget!

Brands that simply reskin an existing Western market campaign and expect it to succeed in China will invariably find that their money is wasted and the campaign sinks without achieving its goals. Marketing success in China requires in-depth knowledge, the definition of target markets, research of needs, wants and desires for specific customer groups, identification of the right digital channels (from a far greater pool than we have in the UK) and beautifully positioned, crafted and managed campaigns with ready engagement, servicing, slick customer journeys and a perfect overall experience. This audience expects to be impressed!

Get Results from your Chinese Marketing Campaigns

So to achieve results from your Chinese marketing activity, use a specialist Chinese digital marketing agency such as Market Me China. Our native language digital professionals have the skills, the technologies and the expertise to deliver campaigns that will work for your brand. We work flexibly according to our clients’ needs and evidence our results to prove our value.

Contact us

Interested? Please get in touch to find out more, and let us help you build your brand successfully in this lucrative, fascinating and exciting growth market! We work with Western businesses across all industries, especially e-commerce, education and travel, and we can make a real difference to your Chinese marketing success.