If Carlsberg Did Cultural Screw-ups

It’s that time of year again, where it’s good to look back on the year gone by, and give recognition to those of us that have outperformed.  

With that in mind, today we’d like to announce the awards for the “Outstanding Cultural Screw-up” for 2018.

If Carlsberg did cultural screw-ups, then this particular award winner would feature highly on the list.

So what just happened here?

Dolce & Gabbana posted three videos (including the one above) to their Instagram account recently of a Chinese model struggling to eat a sample of Italian foods such as pizza and pasta with chopsticks.

However, they were taken down by Chinese social media network Weibo less than 24 hours after they were posted.

According to the digital publication Jing Daily, which covers luxury consumer trends in China, the videos made “big mistakes in tone and taste”.

The campaign was criticised for “trivialising China’s centuries-old culture and depicting Chinese women in a stereotypical and even racist way” by users on social media.

“The way you cut your meat reflects the way you live”

This saying from Confucius underlines how food etiquette in China is very different from other cultures, and requires that you do your homework before going out to dine with your Chinese guests.  With a civilisation more than 5,000 years old, it is easy to appreciate how incredibly rich Chinese culture is, with many of their behaviours today rooted in traditions woven deep into Chinese culture over many hundred years.  

So pay attention to this important local proverb in China which underlines the special emphasis in Chinese culture which is placed on dining etiquette.  This is especially when it comes to the use of chopsticks* where this video was criticised for being improper and disrespectful.

China: The Cost Of Cultural Ignorance

And in many ways there is almost nothing worse you can do to your customers in China than disrespect them.  The bottom line is that respect is more important than almost anything in Chinese culture.

After the uproad which followed, Gabbana wrote on his personal account saying “I’m so sorry for what happened” shortly followed by indicating “I love China and the Chinese Culture.”

However the damage was done.

The company had to cancel its fashion show in Shanghai and a number of leading Chinese celebrities, including actors Zhang Ziyi and Chen Kun, who had been signed up to attend the multimillion-dollar event, joined the widespread criticism of the company.  

Chinese e-commerce firm Yangmatou took down 58,000 Dolce & Gabbana (D&G) products from its site, saying:

“The motherland is more important than anything else”.

On Alibaba’s Tmall shopping portal, a search for D&G returned no results, as did a check on JD.com’s site.

This whole episode has ultimately led to calls for a country-wide boycott of the brand.

And remember, China represents one of the most important luxury markets globally and according to Bain & Company is a market which is forecast to grow by 20%+ this year.

So this cultural faux-pas has the potential to cost the brand tens if not hundreds of millions of Euros.

Which perhaps might explain what happened a few days later where they posted this video above.

It showed Gabbana and co-founder Domenico Dolce appealing for their “misunderstanding of Chinese culture” to be forgiven.  In the video, Gabbana and Domenico Dolce spoke of their love and respect for Chinese culture.

“We offer our sincerest apologies to Chinese people worldwide,” said Gabbana.  Dolce continued: “We hope our misunderstanding of Chinese culture can be forgiven.

“We’ve always been very crazy about China, we’ve visited it a lot. We’ve been to many cities. We love your culture.”
The video ended below with the pair saying the single word “sorry” in Mandarin.

Honour And Face In China

Ultimately, the concepts of honour and saving face are extremely important elements of Chinese culture.  Chinese people are non-confrontational, and in general are very friendly and hospitable.

So this fashion house’s Chinese advertising campaign has really been seen as hugely insensitive and unfortunately, it has even been deemed racist.  

The long-term impact has yet to be determined and will depend on how Dolce & Gabbana deal with the fallout.

They need to be seen as a brand that “Knows China”.

“If they can show they sincerely want to know the Chinese consumer, want to know the Chinese market… their business may turn around,” Ms Ma,  Associate Director of research at market insights firm Mintel.

What can be said with some authority is they will have to do a better job of understanding Chinese culture.

You cannot be seen as global brand if you are not taking local sensitives and local cultural nuances into consideration.

What Can We All Learn From This Episode?

So how can we as individuals apply some of the learnings from this enormous cultural screw-up from Dolce & Gabbana?  

Well to start with, try and make the effort to understand the local dining etiquette.  

Even something which might look playful and harmless in your home culture can morph into something extremely insensitive and disrespectful in another culture.

Many business travellers have seen it with their own eyes.  Take for example where different cultures negotiate. In some cultures,the most important part of negotiation is done around the dinner table in the evening.  Whereas in other cultures, the key negotiation is done in the boardroom earlier that day.

Another great example is from a friend who travelled to Japan, and made the effort to understand Japanese chopstick etiquette, such as using the opposite side of the chopsticks to pick out food from the shared dining plates.  

His business partners remarked to him afterwards how impressed they were that he had made such an effort.  

It translated to a stronger relationship and made doing business there much easier, helping build the trust which is a vital currency to doing business abroad.

UPDATE: The list of the top 1,000 brands in Asia was released in July 2019 and Dolce and Gabbana fell 140 places! See this article here for more:


*See dining etiquette section of China in the CultureMee app for more information.

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