Dolce & Gabbana's China Problem

What the Designer Must Do To Win Back Chinese Consumers

Dec 05, 2018
Marketing

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Dolce & Gabbana is reeling from a self-inflicted scandal that seems unlikely to go away anytime soon.

The Italian fashion house was forced to cancel a highly anticipated runway show last month in Shanghai, amid social media backlash over an ad campaign that many deemed offensive to Chinese culture. The ad campaign, aimed at promoting the runway show, included video of an Asian woman trying unsuccessfully to use chopsticks to eat Italian foods like pizza and cannoli.

The video, which has since been taken down, did not go over well. And neither did the brand’s response.

After people took to social media to condemn the campaign, calling it racist and based on tired tropes about Chinese culture, co-founder Stefano Gabbana appeared to defend the video in comments on his personal Instagram account. The comments, which Gabbana claims he didn't post, insinuated that Chinese people eat dogs, and made other controversial and discriminatory statements. Gabbana said his Instagram account had been hacked.

Gabbana and co-founder Domenico Dolce issued an apology, and canceled the Shanghai show just hours before it was set to begin.

Still, the fiasco is far from over, says Yajin Wang, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. That's in part because some people aren't sure whether to believe Gabbana's claim of a hacking. Other consumers, Wang says, already were struggling to support the design house, which has seen its share of controversy in the past.

“The outrage and the anger actually increased after Gabbana came out and said that it wasn’t him,” Wang says. “I guess the brand panicked. They didn’t really know what to do.”

Dolce & Gabbana likely didn’t anticipate the wide rebuke its ad campaign would prompt, nor that so many Chinese models and celebrities who were set to participate in the event would bail as quickly as they did, Wang continues. That withdrawal of support was incredibly detrimental.

“The celebrities reacted very fast,” she says. “Within a couple minutes, many of them announced on their social media that they were [no longer attending]. I’m not even sure if the celebrities’ companies and representatives knew.”

Chinese e-commerce sites, meanwhile, swiftly dropped many D&G goods from their platforms. What doesn’t help the brand, Wang says, is that luxury products are meant to signify social status and prestige. But no amount of luxury can undo the ill will that’s spread like rapid fire through a country that’s home to more than 1.3 billion people.

“If consumers themselves feel OK [about the brand post-scandal], but they think they are going to be negatively evaluated by society or their friends, they have a lot of other options,” she says. “It’s not like there are no alternative luxury brands with those types of clothes or handbags."

And that's what makes this scandal so bad for Dolce & Gabbana. "Unfortunately, I’m pessimistic, and I think it’s going to take a long time for them to recover from this crisis,” Wang says.

Wang’s advice for D&G’s PR team? Focus on the consumers who are most likely to remain loyal to the brand, perhaps beginning with those who were invited to attend the Shanghai show. Write them personal notes and initiate personal conversations. If executed well, those consumers could become ambassadors for the brand, spreading positive sentiments to broader audiences, including those who might not feel so loyal or understanding.

But also, Wang suggests, the high profile luxury label should try to adopt a very low profile, at least for a while.

“At this point, just let the heat cool down,” she says. “Because right now probably anything Dolce & Gabbana does is going to create even more controversy.”

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About the Expert(s)

Professor Wang received her Ph.D. in Marketing from the Carlson School of Management at University of Minnesota in 2015. Her research focuses on luxury brands and conspicuous consumption, and social/ interpersonal influence on consumer's behavior. Her research has been published in Journal of Consumer Research and Psychological Science, and has been covered in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, BBC News, FOX News, and CNN. She teaches consumer behavior in the undergraduate program.

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