International brands have always had to tread carefully in China, where an appreciation of local culture is essential, but with nationalism on the rise and sensitivity about the origins of coronavirus prevalent, communication tailored to Chinese audiences has never been more important.

Two years ago, Jing Daily, the specialist luxury brand publication, listed ten subjects that it advised brands to avoid if they wanted to connect effectively with Chinese online consumers.

These “taboo” topics covered China’s territorial borders, Tibet and the Dalai Lama, Xinjiang, Tiananmen Square, unflattering depictions of President Xi Jinping, human rights, environmental degradation, Japan, [South Korean] K-Pop and vulgar Western culture.

In the light of tensions heightened by the COVID-19 outbreak, coupled with growing online censorship and nationalist sentiment expressed on the internet, Jing Daily has now updated its guidance to include further “taboo” topics that global brands would be wise to avoid.

Virus-related criticism of China, for example, is said to be taken very seriously by Chinese online consumers.

Whether the criticism refers to China being the alleged source of the disease or puts Chinese eating habits in a bad light, Jing Daily warns that Chinese netizens believe they stem from racial presumptions born out of how the West sees the East. “In their minds, these gaffes expose what Western brands really think of them,” Jing Daily said.

The same goes for any unflattering comment, done wittingly or not, about Chinese sometimes difficult history – for example, negative references to China’s struggle against Japanese part-occupation of the country during the Second World War or the earlier colonial period.

“At a time when the world’s anti-China sentiment is meeting China’s rising nationalism head-on, content making even the slightest reference to China’s inglorious past will turn off netizens,” Jing Daily added.

And this is especially true of younger millennials and Gen Z consumers who have grown up thinking that China endured a century of “humiliation” by the West.

“Any discussion of the nation’s decline, even in the distant past, makes them feel ridiculed and defensive,” the Jing Daily report warned, while noting that an online community on social platform Weibo constantly monitors brand statements and campaigns deemed to be insulting to China’s reputation – and this “China Anti-defamation Stop” has a following of 471,000 plus more than 5.39 billion views.

Global brands should also take great care in their choice of celebrity endorsers or influencers because, in China’s media landscape, an acceptable celebrity is expected to be patriotic, diligent, family-orientated and morally upright.

“Public figures who stray from these ideals risk facing different degrees of backlash that could morph into brand boycotts,” the report said.

Finally, brands are advised to conduct “constant cultural auditing” or recognising what’s happening in Chinese culture, news and viral hashtags on a daily and weekly basis.

“Anything a brand releases needs to go through stages of local auditing and essentially a cultural proofing process,” explained Paul Wong, director of branding agency Kollektiv.

“Many brands have been guilty of putting out content that makes consumers ask, ‘don’t they have a Chinese person in the company?’,” he added.

Sourced from Jing Daily; additional content by WARC staff