social media phone

How kimchi cabbage can destroy your reputation in China

Maria Ignatova

A social media advertising stunt by Dolce & Gabbana in China in 2018 was a costly exercise for the luxury brand as it led to a 98% sales slump.  Some foreign key opinion leaders (KOLS) in China still didn’t understand that exploiting the massive power of modern Chinese social media and e-commerce platforms should not only come with great respect, but also knowledge of tradition.

When D&G ran a series of videos on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and its Sina Weibo account in China ahead of its 2018 “The Great Show” catwalk, its intention was to demonstrate how Chinese and Italian cultures could come together – but it turned into a marketing disaster. It ended up insulting China and highlighting D&G’s lack of understanding of the country’s culture and national pride. The videos captured a Chinese model wearing the brand’s clothes and accessories and clumsily attempting to use chopsticks to eat Italian food in a pretentious way. As a result, luxury brand conscious Chinese shoppers actually turned on D&G burning, destroying and renouncing their products, forcing their removal from popular e-commerce platforms.

The incident became a blueprint of how not to do business with China. But that lesson seemed to have been lost on South Korean internet star Hamzy earlier this year. She may have 5.29 million subscribers to her YouTube channel and an online shop on Chinese e-commerce portal Taobao, but she has been laid low by kimchi, a humble yet iconic food. The vlogger, who reportedly earns more than USD 200,000 per month, live-streams herself cooking and consuming large amounts of various foods – a phenomenon known as mukbang – and gained popularity in China when her videos started to appear on Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter) and video-sharing platforms Bilibili and Xigua Video. But all she had to do recently to cause massive social media indigestion was to like a comment by another internet user about China appropriating the iconic dish. After she sent her thumbs-up she learned that the origin of this fermented dish is hotly debated between China and South Korea. Chinese internet users claimed she had insulted China by showing her approval for what were seen as anti-China comments. Hamzy apologised for her ‘like’ and even hired a Chinese speaker to translate her apology on Weibo, but regaining the trust and loyalty of patriotic Chinese followers is an impossible task. “Cancel culture” in China is strong and the Shanghai-based agency which represented her found it so unpalatable they cancelled her contract.

Influencers along with their millions of social media followers are an increasingly important marketing tool for brands, but reactions on social media can be unpredictable and reputations destroyed in a single click.