D&G: How (not) to Epic Fail in China


Marketing in a foreign culture is not easy, especially in China. D&G latest marketing failure has thus gone beyond epic fails with a huge business impact. Could the Italian Griffe avoid it?


Lately, Dolce & Gabbana is the talk of the town but this time the trending topic is not its latest fashion show or advertisement, well… it is, but not in the way the brand expected.

The Italian firm has recently canceled its “Great Show” that it was supposed to be held in Shanghai after a bad advertisement and the following gaffe starring one of the two designers. D&G had organized a big catwalk presentation to be held in Shanghai on Wednesday, November 21. 1,500 guests, 500 looks, 400 models and, a one-hour fashion show with musicians, performers, and dancers: a giant party as a tribute to the PRC, its greatest market.

To advertise the event, the brand launched three teaser video starring a Chinese model trying to eat large-sized Italian spaghetti, pizza and a cannoli with chopsticks and a voice-over making inappropriate jokes about eating big Italian food. Despite the name of the campaign was “D&G Loves China”, Chinese people rightly felt insulted.


D&G how not to epic fail in china - west nanjing road - shanghai - cifnews

© 123rf. West Nanjing Road, Shanghai. Dolce & Gabbana has 44 boutiques in China, including four in Shanghai, having entered the Chinese market in Hangzhou in 2005.


If three racist stereotypical videos were not enough, a fashion insider started to publish personal conversations with Stefano Gabbana where he was constantly offending the Asian country and its people.

While trying to do marketing in China, the Italian Maison not only unintentionally led the show to be canceled but it also led Chinese people to boycott D&G products and, worst of all, Dolce & Gabbana was kicked out of major Dragon’s e-commerce platforms such as Tmall, JD and Little Red Book. An apology video of the two designers reading a trivial script has not changed the result of what will be remembered as the biggest marketing epic fail of the brand.


However, for what concerns marketing in China, Dolce & Gabbana is not the only brand that totally misunderstood how to deal with the Middle Kingdom: Airbnb, Home Depot and Groupon are some epic fail examples.


One of the latest examples is Airbnb. Despite the American room-rental startup is active in China since some time, last year it decided to rebrand in the country with a new Chinese name. The transliterated name Airbnb chose was 爱彼迎 (Aibiying) whose meaning is supposed to be “to welcome each other with love”.

Airbnb was betting on the name change to win over the Chinese market, where it is way behind its biggest rivals Tujia and Xiaozhu. The company thus announced the name change with a promotional video on the popular microblogging site Weibo but it did not receive the reaction it was expecting.

According to Chinese-speaking netizen, the transliteration also recalls other meanings. The combination of concepts like love and welcome with a character whose pronunciation sounds like female intimate parts makes it look like it is related to the sex industry. In addition, the color of the logo is pink, which is often used to indicate prostitution. The reaction was that people felt embarrassed to download the app and, of course, their comments soon crowded the social networks.


D&G how not to epic fail in china - airbnb aibiying - cifnews

© The Beijinger. The home-sharing market in China is growing. In the country, Airbnb lists 80,000 accommodations that have housed nearly 1.6 million travelers so far.


Choosing a Chinese name to appeal the Dragon’s audience has always been risky as many other famous brands demonstrated. Popular companies such as Nike and Mercedes Benz both suffered from a wrong character’s choice. The big sportswear brand Nike once designed a pair of shoes with special Chinese characters printed on both, 發 and 福. Despite the separated meaning of the two words meant good fortune and wealth, when the heels were joined together, the combination of meanings became “to become fat”. Mercedes Benz, instead, had to turn its first Chinese name 奔死 (Ben si) whose meaning was “rush to die” into a better 奔驰 (Ben Chi), “dashing speed”.

However, while a wrong name choice is a marketing fail with soft repercussions, other popular companies’ marketing moves led to more severe consequences as it happened lately in China to Home Depot and GrouponBack in 2006, the American DIY company opened 12 stores across the Asian country expecting to enter this enormous market without any study of it. What Home Depot did not know is that at that time, not only DIY was not a trend yet but it was also associated with poverty. Six years later, Home Depot had to close its last seven stores with a $ 160 million tax charges.

For what concerns the discounts online marketplace Groupon, it entered the PRC in 2011 thanks to a joint venture with the internet colossus Tencent. This relationship has just started to deteriorate when during the US Super Bowl, Groupon broadcasted a commercial with Tibet-supportive references.

Further problems have risen when the company communicated its receipt to success in the Chinese market. The strategy implied “stealing” competitors’ best employees and acquiring Lashou – the largest Chinese group-buying site – just offering a huge amount of money, an aggressive approach that local companies did not appreciate.


After a couple of months from its adventure in China, Groupon closed 13 of its Chinese locations and fired over 400 full-time staff.


What we learn from these marketing epic fails is that knowing the target is crucial as well as deeply understand the culture the company aims to address. When talking about the PRC, according to Hofstede’s cultural studies, it ranks quite low on the individualism scale. It means that if some marketing decisions offend even just one person, the collective feeling will lead the company to lose more customers than expected.


D&G how not to epic fail in China - D&G Loves China campaign - cifnews

© Dolce & Gabbana. Last year, the “D&G Loves China” campaign already gained media attention for shooting models among humble people. Netizen criticized the choice of showing lower parts of Beijing avoiding the wealthiest ones.


The D&G case offended the whole Chinese culture for many reasons. Regarding the spot’s stereotypes, as someone wrote on Weibo, “with the choice of background music and female models, they want to express the style and scenery of Shanghai women in the 19th century.” Then adds, “the chopsticks are designed to express the clash between cultures.”


While Millenials differ from previous generations in many ways, they are still fond of their traditional culture. Netizen are more informed and open-minded, therefore they are not willing to blindly accept foreign trends or weak marketing attempts.


Despite the modernization of society, China is experiencing a new cultural rebirth as consumptions shows. A signal of Millenials interest in their historical heritage is the success of Story of Yanxi Palace, the 70-episode TV show set in the 18th century during the Qing Dynasty. The show has attracted more than 700 million viewers in just one day showing that young Chinese which have purchasing power and are among the biggest fans of luxury and quality products, do not remain indifferent to tradition and culture.

With the market already divided among so many companies, even a company as successful elsewhere as D&G can be replaced by other firms. Nowadays it is not enough to have a name to emerge unscathed from a crisis. Among all the mistakes done by foreign enterprises, arrogance and lack of local understanding have been the major issues that led the Chinese to boycott their products. Moreover, online communities are a great resource for brands, they contribute to increasing visibility, but they can become the worst enemy when not respected.

Respecting the local culture is thus the first great advice to do business in China and to do so cultural consultancy through in-market audience’s feedback is necessary. Having local managers and workforce on board could also help.

Even if people tend to think online protests will not last long, some crises should not be underestimated, especially if it can affect the company’s business market. In the case of D&G, Stefano Gabbana’s statements are too serious to go unnoticed, especially because they are aimed at a strongly nationalist country, which is proud of its people. 

Even now, D&G is still banned from Chinese e-commerce platforms where their products disappeared in a few days. The damage seems huge, but the extent of it is in the hands of young Chinese customers: the market of a country that will represent 46% of the worldwide luxury business is at stake.




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