Top faults in foreigners’ campaigns

Although the cultural distance between East and West clearly suggest the risk of pitfalls in communication, the rate of marketing fumbles seems to constantly grow even for major international brands.

Still, don’t consider China an intimidating market to enter – just carefully consider what you are doing.

What exactly should foreign businesses pay attention to?

At Shaeps we focus on the things to do rather than the things not to do. However, we learn from our peers and through the series of case studies to follow you will see how foreign companies make-or-break it in China. Surely, they will help your perspectives onto the right path.

1 Misunderstanding culture 

When talking about marketing in China, the first and most fundamental thing you want to do right is to accurately communicate your message to your target consumers. While we all understand the importance of that, for sure, little do foreign marketers know how this seemingly easy task can be done completely wrong by simply forgetting to pick up on cultural nuances.

Burberry: Burberry launched its first Chinese New Year campaign recently. With 4 million views and 90 thousand discussions under the Weibo hashtag #BurberryChineseNewYear, Burberry intended to showcase a modern Chinese New Year, with family members ‘nestling up and showing the togetherness of a family’. But the message was perceived quite differently. Burberry neglected minor things like dark outfits, gloomy faces, and a dull background that all worked against the code. Customers didn’t understand why the family looked 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.

Prada: Prada experienced responses like ‘creepy’, ‘spooky’, ‘perfect as a trailer for horror movie’ upon a campaign featuring new year blessings in huge red Chinese characters three times throughout a video, where people were not feeling very blessed at all. Why? Prada made several mistakes such as the classic old-Shanghai setting, a traditional square table that frequently appeared in Hong Kong horror films – and the models’ vintage outfits representing China in foreign countries, but very outdated and meaningless in a context of younger Chinese.

2 Not properly translating campaign messaging

Direct translations can be tricky and it is crucial to have a native speaker that relates to your target audience on your side. There are plenty of examples of companies making bad translations with disastrous results for the company’s reputation.

Pepsi: Not very recently and yet very memorable, Pepsi’s successful campaign ‘Come Alive’ was translated to what actually meant ‘Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead.’

3 Misusing stereotypical images of the Old China

When trying to make special products or campaigns appeal don’t pile up Chinese cultural motifs like dragons and phoenixes, red lanterns, blue and white porcelains, etc. 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.

Nike: A 2016 China series included the traditional Chinese New Year blessing words ‘Get Rich’ and ‘Good Luck’ . However, Nike didn’t realize that when worn as a pair, they meant ‘getting fat’.

Numerous of the Chinese marketing campaigns implemented by foreign brands fixate on a stereotypical (and often inaccurate) image of the old China. However, especially millennials & Gen-Z expect brands to recognize its current modernity.

Victoria’s Secret: In the 2016 fashion show Victoria’s Secret unveiled a series of dragon-themed lingerie to woo their Chinese consumers. Unfortunately, wrapping a model up with dragons came across as ‘tacky’ and ‘ugly. Victoria’s Secret use of traditional Chinese lion dance color scheme dominated by saturated yellow and red also proved known as exaggerated and out-of-style. Victoria’s Secret was out-of-touch with its’s modern Chinese audience. 

4 Degrading aesthetic standards and taste

Instead of delving too deep into old Chinese images, some brands see the social progression and try to incorporate them into their marketing campaigns. However, a brand new angle sometimes is associated with losing your brand image.

Fendi: The baguette campaign with the quote from Sex and the City ‘This is not a bag, this is a baguette’ was not well-known among Fendi’s Chinese audience and thus totally confused Chinese consumers. Besides the vague message conveyed throughout, the campaign was criticized for coming across as ‘corny’ and ‘cheap’ when misinterpreting Chinese consumers’ aesthetic tastes and behaviour by squeezing a group of super-rich Chinese girls’ crazy shopping spree at Fendi into one commercial along with singing karaoke, playing at a game centre, and shopping at a department store. 

5 Low sensitivity on sensitive issues

Touching on taboo topics is definitely a mistake no brand want to make when marketing in China. Long gone are the days when Chinese feel bad about the “made-in-China” label. Millennials in China take pride in their heritage. Chinese consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the cultural superiority revealed in many foreign brands’ marketing message for China.

D&G: Upon D&G’s notoriously racist ad campaign people were quick to catch the intention behind making a Chinese model look clumsy eating ‘our amazing Italian pizza’ with chopsticks. 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, the damage was done.

There are some political no-go zones that every brand should be aware of before marketing in China. Dalai Lama, for example, is among the last people you would want to include when marketing to Chinese consumers.

Mercedes Benz: In February 2019, Mercedes quoted Dalai Lama on a social media marketing advertisement. 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’.

Recognizing China’s stance on territorial integrity is another undisputable topic to keep in mind.

Delta Air Lines, Qantas, and Zara: All companies had to update their websites recently 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.


A sophisticated, extensive understanding of the local culture and convey your intended message in a culturally-appropriate way is critical.

Play your campaigns as creatively as possible while noting cultural nuances.

Appreciate the modernity.