If you’re an iconic luxury brand, offending Chinese consumers is not a great strategy. According to the McKinsey 2017 China Luxury report, China’s consumers spend around 500 billion RMB (approx. $A100 billion) annually on upscale and luxury goods, which is about one-third of the total annual global spend on such goods. 

Furthermore, the report says that within a decade Chinese spending will account for 44% of the total global market: “By 2025, 7.6 million Chinese households will represent 1 trillion RMB in global luxury sales, an amount that is double that of 2016, and equivalent to the size in 2016 of the US, UK, French, Italian and Japanese markets combined.”

Yes, there has been a slight downturn in China’s economy. But has that dampened the appetite for luxury goods, especially among those under the age of 35? Not a chance.

Enter iconic Italian designer label Dolce & Gabbana with a crudely conceived ad campaign for a high profile D&G fashion show scheduled in Shanghai. The ads, titled “Eating with Chopsticks”, show a female Chinese model trying to eat Italian foods like pizza, spaghetti and cannoli. They look like the kind of thing an ad agency might have made in the 80s. In the cannoli ad, the model is eating a large cannoli with chopsticks while the male voice over asks her, “Is it too big for you?”

Frankly, the ads are so bad it’s embarrassing. This is meant to be a high-end global fashion brand.

What’s far more important than my opinion, though, is that the very same Chinese consumers D&G was attempting to win over with its ads found them to be degrading and belittling. If the people at D&G had thought this one through (which it seems they didn’t) and maybe read something like the McKinsey China Luxury report (or even made their own educated assessment of the market), they would surely have worked out that today’s upmarket Chinese consumer is probably sophisticated and worldly enough to know you don’t eat pizza with chopsticks!

And more importantly, that these consumers want to be treated with respect rather than as the punchline for stale jokes based on racial stereotypes.

But that’s not the worst of it. As if the chopsticks weren’t bad enough, the G in the D&G, Stefano Gabbana, managed to put his brand further into it when an Instagram conversation of his was leaked. In trying to defend the ads from criticism by a model named Michele Tranovo, Gabbana resorted to calling the furore surrounding the ads “fake news” and then said to Tranovo “China Ignorant Dirty Smelly Mafia” and that “from now on in all the international interviews I will do I will say that the country of 💩💩💩💩💩 is China.”

Gabbana subsequently claimed his account had been hacked. The outburst was certainly quite a turnaround from his previous declarations of love for China.

In 2017, Gabbana said “It’s our love for Asia” that was driving the brand’s focus on China.

“After these trips and collections we understand Asia more, and the differences between Hong Kong, China and Japan in terms of cultures, people, food, the approach to life … and since we’re designers, even the proportions of the body. You need to respect each country or place,” Gabbana says. “We need to learn. And if we don’t come here, we don’t learn.”

It appears D&G still have a fair bit to learn about China.

This epsiode is one more example of the need for businesses to pay attention to cultural context and ensure they understand and respect the markets in which they trade. That’s not only relevant to international markets but increasingly also to fragmented and tribalised domestic markets too.

Brands and businesses can no longer take cultural norms for granted. They need to understand how their message is being received by different people within a market. Lazy generalisations and offensive stereotypes just don’t cut it anymore, whether it’s racial, gender or otherwise. People are far more sophisticated about these things now. Brands have to be as well.