Dolce & Gabbana were recently accused of launching a culturally tone-deaf campaign in China

Western brands risk alienating China’s young, modern consumers with campaigns that miss the mark culturally and play to Western clichés of the country, according to marketing experts.

Fashion house Dolce & Gabbana recently became the latest international brand to offend China’s vocal netizens with a social media campaign, which was deemed “offensive” and “tone-deaf”.

The ironically named D&G Loves China campaign aimed to promote the brand’s first fashion show in Beijing, by featuring Dolce & Gabbana-clad models posing among locals and tourists in Beijing tourist spots, such as historic hutongs, Tiananmen Square and The Great Wall.

The campaign was met with backlash from Chinese consumers who accused Dolce & Gabbana of stereotyping China and presenting a backwards view of old “undeveloped” areas rather than images of the new modern China.

How did they get it so wrong?

Louis Houdart, founder and global director of branding and design agency Creative Capital, said Dolce & Gabbana’s campaign presented a romanticised Western view of China, which was out of step with how China’s young millennials see themselves.

“China is a diverse and sophisticated market but too often brands approach the market with their ideas about dragons and hutongs and they play to clichés.

“Chinese millennials are born in incredible modern cities with infrastructures that are often far better than in the West. If you compare the metro systems in Shanghai or Shenzhen with London, New York or Paris, China’s is not only more modern, it is also cleaner, faster and on time. That’s why Chinese milleninals find it so frustrating to see China painted only with a prism of the past.”

“China obviously has thousands of years of history, but China is not only an old place made of gold, red and jade, or old hutong. It is also a vibrant contemporary place and taking a picture of an old Chinese gentleman on a bicycle is an easy cliché,” said Houdart.

Mark Tanner, managing director of marketing and research agency China Skinny agrees: “To me it smacks of a bunch of white-faced ‘creatives’ touring in China for a few days and recreating what was interesting to them. It’s common for Western brands approaching China with a Western mindset, rather than from an often different Chinese consumer perspective.”

While Dolce & Gabbana have silently removed the images from WeChat and Weibo, they remain on the brand’s Instagram profile. The company has not spoken publicly about the images, or returned The Drum’s phone calls.

However, experts say if the brand wishes to minimise the damage they will need to launch new targeted communications for the Chinese market.

“In the short term there is likely to be a small dip in sales, but if they can follow up with a solid proposition and more in-touch marketing, sales are unlikely to fall off a cliff,” said Tanner.

Why brands miss the mark in China

Dolce & Gabbana is not the first foreign brand to fall foul of Chinese consumers with marketing initiatives that fail to connect with China’s big-spending millennials.

Victoria’s Secret was branded “racist” after dressing runway models in dragon-themed outfits in a bid to win over Chinese consumers, and Burberry was seen to have cheapened its brand by adding a Chinese character to its iconic scarves, which many consumers said made the products look fake or counterfeit.

“Chinese consumers are hyper-sensitive about anything that puts China and Chinese people in a bad light,” said Tanner.

“With social media engagement in China amongst the highest in the world – particularly with the big-spending millennials – these things tend to spread far and wide, and very quickly.

“The main motivation for Chinese consumers buying D&G-type luxury brands, is to project status and success to others; but when those others see that…