From Coach’s purportedly “tasteless” campaign with Jeremy Lin to Balenciaga’s retro creative work dubbed as “tacky and offensive” – it seems like brands (luxury, in particular) just can’t do right in China, or are we too biased? WARC's China Editor, Jenny Chan, introduces a deep-dive into the insights you need to know.

China is a nation in a constant state of change, its march towards modernity seemingly at odds with nostalgia over historical and cultural legacies. This is a dichotomy that many foreign brands haven’t quite cracked.

The luxury sector, with its inherent expectations of aspiration, has been the more high-profile perpetrator of cultural faux pas in China but the delicate balancing act between old and new when pitching to Chinese consumers is something that brands from every vertical remain wary of.

With the Lunar New Year looming, the temptation to leverage traditional culture in upcoming campaigns will no doubt be irresistible. But given the rise of nationalism, the revival of Chinese cultural traditions and a growing middle class that demands to be addressed beyond the labels of “oriental” or “rural” – how can foreign brands strike a balance that will not rub Chinese sensibilities the wrong way?

Are too many foreign brands overly focused on "hacking the Chinese culture", which is leading them down the wrong path in the long run? Inner Chapter’s Jidi Guo argues that instead of attempting to hack it, a more genuine way in is via uncovering human truths and addressing them within a specific cultural/societal context. Chinese consumers are now less judgmental about cultural appropriation but will viciously shut down what they see as formulaic and distasteful appropriation.

Say, for instance, society’s expectations of Chinese women and what they are ‘supposed to do’: what to study to become desirable, how to prepare for the dating game, how to be a beautiful wife and career woman at the same time, and so on. TMRC Impact’s Holger E. Metzger outlines how the Prochoin brand successfully deals with this by investing time and energy into understanding the new 'personal narratives' among Chinese ladies.

Given the tremendous transformations China has undergone in the last couple of decades, foreign brands must be aware of a precarious line between the ‘old’ versus the ‘new’ narrative. Carat's Sen Lin offers some observations to unlock the optimal state of a luxury brand’s localisation. It should "centre on bringing forth new and authentic cultural experiences, and co-growing new cultures together with local consumers... May these new cultures safely fly from the old world to China, to the hands of whom they desire, and may all luxury brands’ social managers have a good sleep every night," Lin writes.

How do we break the stereotypes about Chinese culture that have become commonplace? GBP’s Greg Sutcliffe calls on clients, agencies and consultants to all share the responsibility to protect brands from culture blindness, and that embedding culture into marketing messaging is very much a two-way street. According to Sutcliffe, a form of democracy exists in China in its marketplace, because every yuan spent represents a vote for a brand.

Jessica Kong and Scott Teng from Yuzu Kyodai agree, and present an alternative explanation to how Balenciaga, despite negative publicity for its Qixi 2020 campaign, continues to enjoy commercial success, with nearly a third of the Spanish brand's business coming from China. Why? Unlike previous generations of older Chinese consumers who looked to the West for cues to signal sophistication and good taste, younger Gen-Zers in China are rejecting those Western-imposed definitions but actually embracing Balenciaga's controversial ‘tuku’ (or ‘peasant cool’) outputs.

To strategise cleverly and create a clearer connection with mainland consumers, Hypers' Reno L. Davis-Yue notes that it is not a marketer’s job to “market to everyone” but wants brands to understand that the Minimum Viable Audience (MVA) concept doesn’t always mean small. It emphasises the courage to be specific about who it is for. "We will never have enough time, money, or energy to build a brand for everyone. Brands need to be specific and stand for something," he writes.

For marketers to become more precise in cultural marketing, Publicis Groupe’s Jeanette Phang believes that they must kill any unwillingness to adopt ideas that shake the status quo. "Building a story around assumptions is a disservice to both the brand and the consumers it seeks to engage with," she adds. "It takes rigour and dedication – iterative investigations of hypotheses across multiple data sources, prolonged mulling over facts, conversations with people – to find nuance."

There is a whole world of innovative, imaginative and emotive ways of connecting with Chinese people if you have the right insights. Much of the attention paid to China by multinational brands have been on Tier-1 hubs such as Shanghai or Beijing. But ethnographic work by Oliver Sweet and Aude Charbonneau from Ipsos and IFF reveals untapped growth opportunities that lie in tier 3-5 cities, where a slower pace and higher quality of life doesn’t negate consumer demand for premium products and brand experiences.

And, citing Nir Eyal's "Hooked" model, Alice Yu proposes that marketers can use it to create habit-forming products, just like how Chinese reality show “The Sisters Who Make Waves” triggered its predominantly-female audiences to act on the ‘cultural product’ again and again.