Luxury fashion brand Gucci's withdrawal of a jumper following criticism that its design was offensive is the latest in a number of missteps by similar brands with a history of provocative marketing, according to Professor Qing Wang from Warwick Business School. Commenting on the story, she argues that these brands need to be more sensitive and respectful to ethnic communities.
She said: "Luxury brands used to be able to get away with provocative and eccentric ads that push the boundaries of our society and culture in the name of being creative and cutting edge. However, a long list of incidents happened recently which caused public outrages from different segments of the society seemed to suggest that either that era is now gone or luxury brands have lost touch with public sentiment. What used to be considered “creativity” has now turned into “bad taste” or even “racist”.
"The most recent incident is the new design by Gucci of the black "balaclava jumper", which covered the lower half of the face and featured a red cut-out around the mouth. The item prompted a backlash on social media by users who claimed the design was offensive. Blackface has a history of perpetuating offensive and racist stereotypes of African Americans dating back more than 200 years in the United States.
"Gucci's troubles mark the latest in a string of missteps by luxury fashion brands. Merely a few weeks before this incident, Burberry's recent advertising campaign in an effort to reach out and connect with Chinese consumers on an emotional level that have backfired. There was a blitz of criticism on Chinese social media over Burberry's "modern" Chinese Lunar New Year ad campaign, in which Chinese netizens likened its images to Asian horror films.
"Dolce & Gabbana cancelled its Shanghai fashion show amid accusations of racism. The brand posted videos of a Chinese model eating Italian foods like pizza and pasta with chopsticks. Widely seen as offensive, the campaign led to a severe backlash in China with several retailers pulling the brand's products. D&G also caused controversy in 2016 when it called an item of footwear in its spring/summer collection a "slave sandal".
"Despite the very different contexts among these incidents, one thing in common is the stereotypes that these ads or designs have invoked on ethnic communities. Such incidents may come and go, not only left a bad taste, but begged the question in the mind of the consumers of whether these ads or designs are deliberately racist? Or are the luxury brands simply lost touch with the changing public sentiment and these incidents are a reflection of bigger problems and divisions that this world is now facing?
"Whichever the answer might be one thing is clear that Western brands need to infuse more local knowledge into their global strategies. Luxury brands such as Gucci and Burberry are psychologically more distant than utilitarian brands such as Coke Cola for the consumers in order to maintain exclusivity and desirability. However, luxury brands should carefully balance the need for exclusivity and brand emotional relationships with the general public. Specifically, luxury brands need to be more sensitive and respectful (instead of being seen as cold and arrogant) to the culture of different ethnic communities and inject some warmth and empathy to the brands instead of alienation and even hatred. This is for the good of the brands themselves given the brands are now selling heavily to the consumers from those communities including the Chinese, Indian and African consumers. According to consulting firm McKinsey & Company, in recent years, Chinese shoppers have emerged as one of the biggest forces in global luxury spending. Chinese luxury consumers account for more than RMB 500 billion ($73.3 billion) in annual spending, representing almost a third of the global luxury market, and by 2025 it will account for 44 per cent of the total global market."
Media Relations Manager (Warwick Medical School and Department of Physics)
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