Why Can’t Western Brands Get Asia Right?

Versace, Coach, Givenchy, and Swarovski recently had to apologise for their missteps in Asia, joining an already shamed Dolce & Gabbana in a growing list of brands with a deplorable sense of cultural—and geographical—awareness

 

Versace T-shirt 2019The Versace T-shirt that riled mainland Chinese Netizens. Photo: Weibo

By Raiment Young

Many years ago, at a media event that I attended in Monte Carlo, I came face to face with the now-out-of-favour, former Vogue editor-at-large, companion to Diana Vreeland in her final years, André Leon Talley. Mr Talley was not a caftan-wearing man at the time, as he became, up till the 2017 release of The World According to André. Still, he was imposing in a dark suit, speaking in that loud, clear, and urgent voice of his, sounding exactly the way he sounded, years later, while observing—and commenting on—the stars at the Academy Awards for a TV audience. When I came before him that night on my way to the patio of the palatial grounds on which the soiree took place to enjoy the cooler outdoors, he looked down at me, smiled, and gleefully offered, “konbanwa”. I returned the greeting by saying, “Good evening, Mr Talley”.

If this was the present, and it happened not to me, but someone else—say, a ‘woke’ person, now one to be, offence could have been immediately taken. A scolding might have ensued or an online rebuke quickly posted. But this was then. I was used to Caucasians mistaking me for every nationality or race in this part of the world except Laotian. Or, Dayak. The Japanese, powerful consumers like the Chinese are today, were frequently travelling to Europe. I understood that it was easy to mistake me for someone from, say, Tokyo or Toyota since it was likely that the Asians many Europeans and Americans encountered then were nihonjins, just as many today are zhongguoren.

In my early travels to the US, Americans would frequently ask, upon learning that I am from Singapore, “are you from China?” So often was this question posed that it soon dawned on me that this was going to be a tiring cliché for as long as I was in a place where not that many people owned a passport. It was said to me then that most Americans, whether in the heartlands or hub cities, consider Asia as one homogeneous place. How they came to that conclusion I had no clue. Few knew Samarkan from Samarinda. If they heard of Singapore, even if in their mind we weren’t a sovereign state, we were lucky.

There are Chinese in Singapore, which is not in China?

 

“There are Chinese in Singapore, which is not in China?” Sometimes, I became lazy and just said, smilingly, “Yes, I am from China, 你这个笨蛋 (you fool) or bodoh (stupid)”, depending on my mood. This was, of course, way before Donald Trump met Kim Jong Un here last year and, as a consequence, shone a brighter spotlight on our island. (Interestingly, even then, the US State Department was mistaken: they made Singapore part of Malaysia.) This was also way before people heard of such expressions as cultural racism or racial profiling. But I think, back then, we were a lot less sensitive to the cluelessness (carelessness?) of others and we did not, even after repeated encounters, take the insensitivity seriously or personally; we were not easily riled up; we were less emotionally fragile, and we were more forgiving. And we had better things to do, such as see the country that we had come to see.

You’d imagine things would have changed now that the Internet is connecting the world. And Google has answers, frequently than not. But, more than a decade after my encounter with Mr Talley under a midnight-blue sky in Monte Carlo, there are Westerners and, indeed, Western brands that still can’t get Asia right. They can’t see the vastness of the continent and, hence, its plurality. Now that even once-less-visited countries such as Vietnam is on the verge of over-tourism, it is surprising and, frankly annoying, that there are those Westerners who think Hong Kong is a country. Does the city’s contingent at the Olympic Games mislead those outside Asia to think that the SAR is a sovereign state not connected to the mainland?

The recent case of Versace and Coach producing similar T-shirts with near identical blunders bolster the believe that Western brands are still not looking at Asia closely and carefully enough. There are those who think that no matter what they produce, however tone deaf or fact blind, we Asians will snap them up as if they’re another cup of boba milk tea. But I do wonder: is it mere oversight to not know China’s hard-lined stance on its sovereignty and territorial rights? A provocation to garner maximum online reaction and, hence, to project newsy appeal? Or, is it sheer, inexcusable ignorance?

Coach tee 2019.jpgThe Coach T-shirt that, too, angered mainland Chinese Netizens. Photo: Weibo

I had thought that the Dolce & Gabbana faux pas less than a year ago was bad enough—so bad, in fact, that other brands would start to become mindful of what they will say, communicate, or project. But one brand’s mistake is not necessarily another’s learning curve or awakening. While many brand owners acknowledge that Asia is an important market, if not the most important (China alone accounts for a third of the world’s luxury sales), they would not tread cautiously. Or, preemptively. Popularity, as movie/pop stars could tell you, may inure you to apathy, but that’s never good enough a reason to believe you won’t traipse a cultural minefield.

It appears that just because a brand has found favour among a sizeable number of spending consumers in Asia, it can step away from cultural, territorial, or political sensitivity. It is ironic that while brands are hiring ‘diversity chiefs’ to make sure they don’t exclude the non-Caucasian in product development and communication, none thought to appoint someone with the knowledge or interest in knowing that, for example, Taiwan is not, and likely never will be, a country.

It has become more apparent to many that admirable creativity in the atelier does not necessarily commensurate with awareness in marketing. It is often said that brands should decentralise their marketing, but few do. Away from Asia, some of the brands have become  intellectually lazy and incurious. And willing to only state the obvious to underscore the brand’s global reach. In the case of the above T-shirts, I think it is superfluous to juxtapose—in the show-off list—the city in which the brand is available with the corresponding country to which the former belongs. It is strange that any marketeer would imagine that those who buy Versace or Coach need to be informed that Paris is in France. How many people would equate the City of Light with Lamar County, Texas?

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