Dolce & Gabbana is one of the most famous fashion brands in the world. Their clothes have been worn by some of the most recognisable stars on the planet such as Beyoncé, Kylie Minogue, and Madonna.
Firmly established as a top fashion house in the west, their gaze soon turned to lucrative markets in the east, in particular, China. With a population of over one billion, it’s no wonder Dolce & Gabbana were eager to entrench themselves into this market. Especially when it’s reported that 30% of their $1.3 billion earnings in 2017 came from the Asia-Pacific region.
To gain a foothold in foreign markets, companies will usually come up with an ad campaign that introduces them to the local market. One of the most memorable that springs to my mind is when Enterprise rent-a-car entered the UK market.
Their adverts played on the cultural differences between the U.S. and the UK, which helped endear them to the UK public. They were well-thought, funny, and played on stereotypes, but with their tongues firmly in their cheek.
This is a great way to expand your brand into another country, as long as you do it right. Dolce & Gabbana was already well-known in China when they released a series of videos on social media in November 2018.
But what happened next had the opposite effect of Enterprise’s campaign. Instead of bringing the local market on board, they alienated them.
Instead of poking lighthearted fun at cultural stereotypes, Dolce & Gabbana overstepped the mark and insulted a whole nation through a poorly conceived ad campaign.
The ad shows a Chinese woman sitting at a table attempting to eat a variety of popular Italian dishes such as pizza and spaghetti. This sounds innocent enough but when you watch the video you can see why it caused an uproar.
The video shows the woman attempting to eat pizza with a pair of chopsticks. She looks confused, prods the pizza to no effect, and then tears a bit of it off and grasps it with the chopsticks.
The second ad is no better, with the woman confronted with a big bowl of spaghetti. Again, she looks at the bowl in a confused manner wondering how to eat it with her trusty chopsticks. Eventually, she twists the chopsticks around the spaghetti and takes a bite.
While the woman is attempting to eat pizza and spaghetti, a narrator speaks in the background. Unfortunately, my Mandarin is limited to two words, so I had to turn to Wikipedia to get a gist of what he was saying.
Yes, this ad campaign is listed on Dolce & Gabbana’s Wikipedia page, that’s how bad it turned out! The narrator is said to speak “with a hubristic and lecturing tone while having sexually suggestive lines.”
Once you’ve watched the video it’s not hard to see why these ads caused such outrage and why it was a marketing disaster. From the Chinese perspective, the videos are patronising and trivialise their culture. After watching it, I felt like it was implying that Chinese people eat everything with chopsticks regardless of how impractical it might be.
From a marketing perspective, I don’t know what Dolce & Gabbana were trying to achieve with these videos. Watching them, you’d have no idea they were a fashion company, you’d assume they were a restaurant or a takeaway company.
I understand what their strategy was. They wanted to show how Chinese and Italian cultures can come together. It was similar to the one that Enterprise employed in the UK. The problem was that Enterprise’s campaign endeared the company to their intended audience, while Dolce & Gabbana alienated it. It also helped Enterprise that British and American culture are a lot closer aligned than Chinese and Italian cultures.
The social media outcry in China was swift, with users accusing Dolce & Gabbana of racism and playing up to stereotypes about Chinese people. To make matters worse, a few days after the company had removed the videos from its social media channels in China, a screen capture of racist comments made by D&G co-founder, Stefano Gabbana, came to light.
In a direct message to an American fashion blog on Instagram, he complained about the removal of the videos and referred to China as the “Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia.” He also said China was a “country of shit,” in his ill-thought-out message.
Dolce & Gabbana released a statement claiming that their account and that of their designers had been hacked, but by then it was too late. A string of Chinese celebrities severed their ties with the company and others withdrew from “The Great Show” event, which the ads had been promoting.
Instead of entrenching its brand in China, the campaign did the opposite. A report found that sales for Dolce & Gabbana were down 98% in the country from the same period last year. The figures are shocking, but when you consider Chinese shoppers are the biggest buyers of luxury goods, it becomes clear how big of a mistake their ad campaign was.
China has a powerful online cancel culture and Dolce & Gabbana felt the full wrath of it. Whether the company can reclaim its position in the country remains to be seen. What the debacle does show is the importance of understanding your target market and the necessity of navigating cultural barriers.
Dolce & Gabbana fell flat on their face in this regard. Had they constructed their ad with a bit more tact, they may have succeeded. However, the ad had all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop.
If you want your brand to go global, the message is clear: put out an ad campaign that doesn’t play up to stereotypes and alienate your target market. Otherwise, you could get cancelled, like Dolce & Gabbana.