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Top 5 Big Mistakes Foreigners Make when Marketing in China

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Top 5 Big Mistakes Foreigners Make when Marketing in China

Marketing in China is never an easy task. With the list of marketing fumbles constantly growing even for huge international brands, it can seem like an intimidating market to enter.



What exactly should foreign businesses pay extra attention to before launching their Chinese marketing plans? How can businesses tower above their competitors rushing into China using similar marketing channels when they all have the same goals in mind? How can businesses really engage and connect with local consumers while maintaining their foreign identity?



With all these questions in mind, let’s discuss further while going through a series of case studies to see how foreign businesses play (or shouldn’t have played) in the make-or-break game of marketing in China.



Table of Contents


Top 5 Big Mistakes Foreigners Make when Marketing in ChinaRead Now







Examples of Successful Campaigns Marketing in China and Their Secret RecipeRead Now



Top 5 Big Mistakes Foreigners Make when Marketing in China



>Misunderstanding Traditional Chinese Culture



When talking about marketing in China, the first and most fundamental thing you want to do right is to make sure getting you are accurately communicating your message to your target consumers.



We all understand the importance of that, for sure. But little do foreign marketers know how this seemingly easy task can be done completely wrong by simply forgetting to pick up on cultural nuances. 



This happens even to huge brands that are clearly not new to the Chinese market and have the resources to properly conduct research and plan their campaigns. 



Burberry – A Modern New Year Family Portrait or A Horror Movie Poster?



Burberry launched its very first Chinese New Year campaign earlier this year. With 4 million views and 90 thousand discussions under the Weibo hashtag #BurberryChineseNewYear, the campaign indeed caught a lot of attention, but unfortunately not in the way the brand desired.



Collaborating with its Chinese ambassadors Wei Zhao and Dongyu Zhou this time, Burberry intended to showcase a Modern Chinese new year, with family members “nestling up and showing the togetherness of a family”.



But this message was perceived quite differently when the campaign was viewed by Chinese consumers.



Marketing Mistake, Marketing in China, Burberry, Dragon Social

Full view of the family portrait in Burberry’s New Year campaign



Marketing Mistake, Marketing in China, Burberry, Dragon Social

Here’s another one, with the grandma surrounded by her vicious-looking “family members”



Clearly, not many people understand why the family looks so unhappy on this festive occasion. “Does Burberry think I am the kind of person who celebrates the New Year with a long face?”, questioned one Weibo user. Some even see alternative stories behind this unsettling scene like a “Ruthless family trying to kill their rich grandma and preparing to battle for her wealth”.



However funny these comments were, all the buzz and attention on social media did not bring Burberry positive business result after all, as data shows a decreased demand in the China market followed.



Despite Burberry’s effort to make a chic tweak to the traditional Chinese family portrait, they obviously forgot to do some thorough research on all the cultural nuances that lie beneath the surface and the potential message that the audience could receive. 



If there’s one word to describe the spirit of Chinese New Year, it must be “jubilance”, rather than togetherness”. And when minor things like dark outfits, gloomy faces, and a dull background all work against this code, it might not be surprising to see why the campaign failed completely in sending the right message to Burberry’s target audience.



Prada – When “Chinese Red” Went Wrong



Prada is another brand that overreached when trying to wow the Chinese during the holiday season.




“Creepy”, “Spooky”, “perfect as a trailer for horror movie” were how many Chinese people responded to the campaign. Though the campaign featured new year blessings in huge red Chinese characters three times throughout the video, people were not feeling very blessed at all from this particular campaign.



Prada, Prada CNY Campaign, Prada Commercial, WeChat, Dragon Social

Words of CNY Blessings appear 3 times at the beginning, middle, and end of the commercial



Let’s see what minor elements sent across the wrong message this time.



The classic old-Shanghai setting, a traditional square table (八仙桌, frequently appear in Hong Kong horror films), and the models’ vintage outfits might be symbols representing China in foreign countries, but they’ve become very outdated and don’t serve to create any meaningful connections with younger generations in China.  



All these obsolete elements, put together with a creepy bloody red backdrop (Yes, Chinese love red in the new year season, but not to this extent…) and the model’s melancholy faces, made the commercial resemble a 90s horror film for the viewers.



Prada, Prada CNY Campaign, Prada Commercial, WeChat, Dragon Social

In the next scene, the model is about to wish the audience a happy new year. But I honestly think it looks like she is about to go on a murderous rampage.



Again, an example proving that a Chinese marketing strategy with insufficient understanding of the Chinese traditional culture can backfire and cause more negative sentiment than positive. 



Not Properly Translating Campaign Messaging 



Many people think translating from their native language to Chinese is just as easy as with most other languages. Yet try to talk to people who’ve tried to learn Mandarinm and they’ll tell you how difficult direct translations can be!



In these situations, it’s crucial to have a native speaker on your side. There are plenty of examples of companies making bad translations with disastrous results for the company’s reputation. Chinese is a very contextual language and thus translation companies and AI based translation apps can struggle to translate Chinese correctly.



Chinese as a language is constantly evolving as well. New words and phrase are constantly entering and exiting the Chinese lexicon. One tip we’ve always found to be effective is to find a translator that relates to your target audience to ensure they use the right slang and phrases to properly entice your audience. Copywriting is an incredibly important part of marketing and isn’t something you want to mess up.



Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back From The Dead



This is an old example, but one that is still relevant today. Pepsi has never issued a statement on this, so it’s still unconfirmed if this actually happened but the lesson remains the same.



In the 1960s Pepsi had trouble connecting with younger generations and was mostly seen as a cheaper alternative to Coca-Cola. Naturally Pepsi wanted to change this perception, and succeeded with its campaign “Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation.”



With its success in Western markets, Pepsi thought it would work equally well in other markets. This may have even been the case if they got the translation right. As the story goes Pepsi translated the campaign message to the following:




When Pepsi began marketing to Chinese consumers with its newly translated slogan they quickly found out their translation had a different meaning. It turns out their translation actually meant “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead.”





Misusing Stereotypical Images of the Old China



When trying to make special products or campaigns appeal to the China market, make sure you are not simply piling up Chinese cultural motifs like dragons and phoenixes, red lanterns, blue and white porcelains, etc. For many Chinese this is like an ad campaign featuring cowboy hats, burgers, and apple pies to target Americans. 



Indeed, these might be the most easily identified Chinese cultural elements to the rest of the world, but this does not mean they speak to Chinese consumers nowadays. If you’re creating a product for marketing to Chinese consumers consider the unique tastes of your audience rather than just relying on these old motifs! 



Nike's 2016 CNY series with the traditional Chinese New Year blessing words “發”(get rich) and “福” (good luck). They didn't realize that when worn as a pair, “發福” literally means “getting fat”.

Nike’s 2016 CNY series with the traditional Chinese New Year blessing words “發”(get rich) and “福” (good luck). They didn’t realize that when worn as a pair, “發福” literally means “getting fat”.



Burberry 2015 CNY limited-edition scarf with the giant Chinese character “福” (fortune), was said to look like a knockoff at a local wholesale market by Chinese netizens.

Burberry’s 2015 CNY limited-edition scarf with the giant Chinese character “福” (fortune), was said to look like a knockoff at a local wholesale market by Chinese netizens.



Most of the Chinese marketing strategies and campaigns implemented by foreign brands these days fixate on a stereotypical (and often not accurate) image of the old China. However, Chinese consumers, especially millennials & Gen-Z, expect brands to recognize its current modernity, instead of simply throwing a bunch of superficial cultural cliches at them.



Victoria’s Secret – A Fashion Show that Reminds You of The Lion Dance



Another instance of a brand making the mistake of misusing stereotypical images when marketing in China was during Victoria Secret’s 2016 fashion show. In the show they unveiled a series of dragon-themed lingerie to woo their Chinese consumers.



Elsa Hosk, Victoria's Secret; Marketing in China; Marketing Mistake; Dragon Social

Elsa Hosk’s look on the 2016 Victoria’s Secret Show



Unfortunately, in the eyes of the Chinese audience, wrapping a model up with dragons came across as “Tacky” and “ugly”. Instead of looking elegant and noble, this outfit showed the Chinese that Victoria’s secret was out-of-touch with its’s modern Chinese audience. 



Another takeaway for any businesses marketing to Chinese consumers – avoid using extremely bright and saturated color schemes all the time! Otherwise, like what Victoria’s Secret did, this will be what your message reminds Chinese of:



Lion Dance - Dragon Social

The Traditional Chinese Lion Dance, known for its exaggerated and out-of-style color scheme



If you are seeking something that ticks all the boxes, here’s a color scheme that actually originated from ancient China and is now popular among Chinese designers.



Chinese color scheme, traditional Chinese, Dragon Social

The real traditional Chinese color scheme is quite the opposite of “bright yellow and saturated red”



Equating Localization with Degrading Aesthetic Standards and Taste



Instead of delving too deep into old Chinese images, some brands see the social progression and new trends in China and try to incorporate them into their China marketing strategies.



However, a brand new angle sometimes doesn’t necessarily produce the best result. Bear in mind not to over-do this to the extent that you lose your brand image and degrade your brand’s aesthetic standards. Chinese consumers love to get a bargain, but they definitely don’t want to spend a fortune on something that looks cheap.



Dior – When A Brand Goes Too Down-to-Earth



Last year, Dior launched a commercial in China featuring their 2018 FW Season saddle bag. They likely noticed that online-shopping was growing rapidly, and created a campaign similar to those run by Chinese e-commerce companies.  Unfortunately, the whole commercial looked like a low-budget Taobao store promotional campaign.



Dior Commercial, Marketing in China, Marketing Mistake, Taobao, Pinduoduo, Dragon Social

Screenshots from the widely-criticized Dior commercial



“This looks cheaper than what WeChat merchants (微商) do for their fake handbags.” was one comment from a Chinese netizen.



Creative Chinese netizens even re-edited the video clip with the Pinduoduo (a Chinese e-commerce platform popular for discounted products and group-buying schemes) theme song and logo to express how this commercial was perceived in their eyes.



Marketing in China, Marketing Mistake, Dior, Pinduoduo, Taobao, Dragon Social

“It finally looks right.” exclaimed by Chinese netizens after they tweak the clip into commercials for Pinduoduo and Tmall, which are famous for their tacky online campaigns.



Fendi – “Baguette” or “Bad Taste”?



Another example is from Fendi’s Baguette campaign. With the quote from Sex and the City “This is not a bag, this is a baguette.” (which is not well-known among Fendi’s Chinese audience). With this being the only slogan in the campaign, this totally confused Chinese consumers.



Besides the vague message conveyed throughout, this marketing piece was mainly criticized for misinterpreting Chinese consumers’ aesthetic tastes and behavior. On top of featuring a group of super-rich Chinese girls’ crazy shopping spree at Fendi, the brand squeezes all the elements they thought were trendy in China  into one commercial – singing karaoke, playing at a game center, shopping at a department store, etc (this may have worked in the 90s). 



The final effect looked chaotic and bizarre to modern Chinese consumers, ultimately coming across as corny to most Chinese netizens. 



Fendi, Marketing in China, Marketing Mistake, Dragon Social, Baguette

In an effort to look more localized and approach young Chinese lifestyle, the Fendi commercial was accused of being “corny” and “cheap”



Ill-considered Campaigns Touching on Sensitive Issues



Touching on taboo topics is definitely a mistake no brand want to make when marketing in China. Still, such missteps continue to appear in many Western companies’ China marketing strategies.



D&G – Sabotaging Their Brand Image with Cultural Superiority



Long gone are the days when Chinese feel bad about the “made-in-China” label. Millennials in China don’t blindly chase after just anything with a Western origin anymore and take pride in their heritage. 



With rising nationalistic sentiments prevailing on the internet, Chinese consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the cultural superiority revealed in many foreign brands’ marketing message for China.



Take D&G’s notoriously racist ad campaign as an example. People were quick to catch the intention behind making a Chinese model look clumsy eating “our amazing Italian pizza” with chopsticks. As you probably know, the fierce criticism and boycott that followed almost swatted the brand out of China completely, with their products disappearing seemingly overnight from various e-commerce platforms. 



Even after the brand made public apologies, it seems that the damage is done, and with Chinese making nearly 1/3 of luxury brand purchases worldwide, this is one incident that will likely sting for quite a while.





Mercedes Benz – Involvement with Political Taboos



There are some political no-go zones that every brand should be aware of before marketing in China.  This is the kind of hot water you don’t want to step in when planning your Chinese marketing strategies.



Accused in China as a political exile leading separatist activities, The Dalai Lama is among the last people you would want to include when marketing to Chinese consumers.



Mercedes Benz was obviously among the companies unaware of this sensitive issue. 



In February 2019, they quoted The Dalai Lama on a social media marketing advertisement. This ad piece on Instagram, though not intended for Chinese consumers, still triggered an uproar on the internet. It was taken so seriously that the People’s Daily Online published a commentary accusing Mercedes Benz of being “an enemy of the Chinese people”.



Mercedes Benz, Marketing in China, Marketing Blunder, Dragon Social

The piece of ad on Mercedes Benz’s official Instagram that got the company into some serious hot water.



Recognizing China’s Stance on Territorial Integrity



Another detail you need to keep in mind for your Chinese marketing strategy is the undisputable topic of territorial borders.



Last year, Delta Air Lines, Qantas, and Zara all had to update their websites for listing Hong Kong and Taiwan as countries separate from China. The Marriott’s website in China was shut down after categorizing Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as separate countries as well.



If China is an important market for your business you’ll want to do everything you can to avoid any political issues, as the backlash caused by incidents like this can cause irreparable damage to your brand.




Marriott’s official webpage that got shut down after the incident




Examples of Successful Campaigns for Marketing in China and Their Secret Recipes



Now that we have seen all the failed examples of foreign companies marketing in China, you must be wondering – What about the successful ones and what are the secrets to their success?



Here is a list of well-played Chinese marketing strategies carried out by foreign companies for you to take some reference from.



Maybelline – Understanding The Essence of Chinese New Year



Among all product categories, cosmetic companies usually fight the hardest to win the attention of Chinese consumers’ on gift-giving holidays like Chinese New Year.



This year, the cosmetic brand that stood out from the crowd was Maybelline.



Maybelline was able to distinguish itself from other cosmetics brands, who mindlessly print chinese characters or zodiac signs with red color schemes on their products, with their Mahjong Cosmetics Set. The product impressed millions of bored Chinese consumers with their creativity and ingenious design. 



Maybelline CNY Marketing, Maybelline Campaign, Marketing in China, Dragon Social

Maybelline’s Mahjong cosmetic set, specially designed for their newly launched “Red-on-Fire” lipstick series



As one of the most popular household games in China that isn’t widely known in other countries, Mahjong incorporates many of the elements the Chinese love to see during the holiday season –  Family, Fortune, and Fun. With all-new lipsticks named after festive words like “crackers”, “spring couplets”, and “Red Zhong”(means red dragon in Mahjong) packed together with a chic set of Mahjong tiles, Maybelline’s new year gift box was simply too delightful to resist for many Chinese consumers.



You can check out some more cool examples of Chinese New Year products released in 2019 here:



9 Eye-Catching Prodcuts For Chinese New Year 2019!



Coca-Cola – Embracing the Modernity of China



As mentioned previously, Chinese consumers expect brands to not only acknowledge the country’s past but also appreciate its modernity.



Being in the market through all its ups and downs the Coca-Cola clearly showed it understood this well. In this 2018 campaign celebrating the 40th year of China’s reform and opening, the company showcases the rapid improvement in Chinese living standards since its entry into the Chinese market.



With its slogan “Time is changing, care is the same.”, The brand addresses the rapid social progress that has taken place while invoking Chinese people’s treasured memories with Coca-cola in their life journey – Quite impressive that a foreign brand was able to build this sense of attachment with its Chinese consumers, right?



Coca Cola, Marketing in China, Dragon Social

Coca-Cola’s Poster for The Campaign



On the final poster, it writes, “Time evolves; we all grow; but whenever we open a bottle of Coca Cola, it’s always the same joy that follows.”

On the final poster, it writes, “Time evolves; we all grow; but whenever we open a bottle of Coca Cola, it’s always the same joy that follows.”



Doctor Who – When Cultural Infusion Is Made Right



As stated, many Chinese consumers are getting tired of their culture being represented by cliche motifs with flashy colors. So, your Chinese marketing strategy will stand out if it incorporates the right elements with a good aesthetic sense.



The BBC’s long-lived popular TV series, Doctor Who, set a good example.



As the show is not very well-known in China, The BBC launched a series of China-themed poster earlier this year to bond with the Chinese audience.



BBC, Doctor Who, Marketing in China, Dragon Social

A Full collection of Doctor Who’s 7 China-themed posters, each featuring a city in China



Featuring The TARDIS, Doctor Who’s time-traveling English phone booth, near major Chinese landmarks, the poster series delicately blended Chinese realistic paintings with modern illustration techniques from the west. The elegant traditional Chinese color scheme adds on further to its aesthetic value.



The marketing campaign received wide acclaim soon after its launch and was even a hot topic among professional graphic designers in China who hoped to replicate this style.




Final Takeaways on Marketing to Chinese Consumers



Despite all these missteps foreign businesses have taken when marketing in China, Chinese consumers are not so hard to please if you can market to them in the right way.



No matter how your Chinese marketing strategies are going to be laid out, two things are especially crucial if you want them to work like a charm in China – Have a sophisticated, extensive understanding of the local culture, and convey your intended message in a culturally-appropriate way. If you play it as creatively as possible while noting cultural nuances then this delicate game for foreign marketers will be yours to ace. For more information digital marketing in China for 2019 check out the blog below: 



Top 5 China Digital Marketing Trends 2019



Dragon Social is a China Digital Marketing Agency dedicated to providing expert solutions to businesses around the world! Our team of professionals will take a deep dive into your business and determine the optimal channels and strategies for promoting your business in China, so be sure to Contact us for a free consultation!



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Rachel Lou

Born and raised in Shenzhen, Rachel is a member of the "Generation Z" in China who grew up witnessing the continuous evolvement of Chinese social media. She is passionate about Chinese digital marketing, content creation, Asian languages, and Thai food.

  • Avatar
    Ravil Yakupov
    Posted at 12:45 am, July 12, 2017

    Raymond how to determine the pricing of your product? How can I test the sensitivity of the price?

  • Avatar
    Posted at 5:17 am, January 22, 2019

    I really appreciate insightful and impactful thought.

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    William Ronald Spain, Jr.
    Posted at 9:31 pm, February 18, 2019

    Thank you for the information. And that was funny about Pepsi bringing ancestors back from the dead and such.

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