What can we learn from the Dolce & Gabbana incident in China?

The fashion giant Dolce & Gabbana (D&G) is facing a national boycott across all of China after it released a series of ads on its social media accounts in November, seen by the Chinese public as disrespectful, racist and sexist.

Meant as a tribute to China and to promote its upcoming Shanghai runway show, originally planned to be one of the largest gatherings of fashion icons and celebrities in China, the videos featured an Asian actress in a D&G dress struggling to eat a pizza, an oversized cannoli and spaghetti with chopsticks. The actress gingerly stabs at the food with her chopsticks as if she has never encountered Italian food before, while a male voice in Mandarin narrates in a mocking tone, including these gems: “How can you manage to eat our great pizza margherita with these twig shaped tools?” and “Is it still too big for you?” (Watch the original adverts here)

The world watched in part-fascination and part-horror as the videos, and subsequent posts of insulting comments screenshot from a private Instagram chat featuring Stefano Gabbana, prompted one of the swiftest nationwide brand boycotts in history. Within two hours of the chat history shared by a fashion blogger, hundreds of Chinese actors and models who were to walk the runway withdrew from the show, while some of D&G’s Chinese brand ambassadors terminated their contracts.

And that’s not all. Key stakeholders unequivocally stood by the boycott: not only netizens, media and celebrities but also the retailers, e-commerce partners and even the Chinese government.

How did this happen and what can we learn from the wreckage of this incident?

(1) Never forget the importance of (a constantly shifting) context.

 When companies plan to create something a little outrageous than usual to differentiate themselves, it is vital to comprehend the local markets and consider the consequences. D&G probably thought the videos could state its love for China in a humorous way, but a different cultural context meant that reception of the content could stray far away from its intentions. In increasingly globalised markets, insights and sentiments from individual market teams should be considered and valued from planning to execution to gain the deep understanding of culture that you cannot retrieve from a briefing.

Furthermore, a context can change, and brands need to keep up to avoid tone-deaf communications. While foreign brands used to be seen as highly prestigious in China in their heyday, they are today more vulnerable to scrutiny as China strives to grow into a global leader. The D&G controversy revealed an all-time sensitive but significant issue: China’s national pride. Growing local pride means that international brands need to work hard for the favour of Chinese consumers, and therefore demonstrate understanding and respect for Chinese culture.

(2) Own your mistakes quickly, learn and improve.

Eventually, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, designers and founders of the brand, issued an apology video to the Chinese people. (Watch the apology video here)

However, this was only after retailers pulled their merchandise off shelves and e-commerce partners removed wares online, a full two days after the incident. And not to mention the apology came after an initial response of insisting D&G’s accounts have been hacked, which fell flat to the public. 

In today’s social media age, the apology came almost a century too late, and reeked of insincerity to the Chinese public. In light of crisis, deleting what has been posted and keeping quiet will not accelerate the process of rebuilding the brand image. Clear and timely messages on admitting the mistakes and willingness to improve may show a committed move forward to restore public faith.

(3) Going beyond an apology.  

What this means as well is to lead from the top. Company values are usually exemplified by their leaders. Private comments from Stefano Gabbana’s personal social media account added fuel to the fire and ultimately jeopardised D&G’s brand reputation in China. Leaders are held to high standards, and their communications should be managed as such.    

We are yet to find out how much this incident has cost D&G financially, and how long it will take for D&G to re-establish its reputation in China. But we know it will take more than an apology to gain the market’s trust.

Months later, the incident no longer occupies the media headline and D&G has since held some successful sales — with products at a steep discount. However, the fact that the key ecommerce platforms, such as Taobao, JD.com, and VIP.com, haven’t relaunched their merchandise may indicate that people are not yet willing to let the matter go.