How brands can succeed amid China’s ‘new era’ of political correctness

Peppa Pig has become the latest cartoon character to fall foul of Chinese sensitivities after being accused of promoting gangster attitudes. In this guest post, Prophet's Tom Doctoroff tells brands they must sidestep such booby traps by developing a compelling and well-defined brand purpose

In Xi JinPing’s “New Era” of political correctness, multinational brands must inoculate themselves against unexpected booby traps by becoming relentlessly relevant in the lives of consumers.

The recent disappearance of cartoon character Peppa Pig on video platform Duoyin begs the question of whether marketers are facing a restrictive sea change. Peppa was becoming too hip amongst the slacker (shehuiren) crowd. She was the subject of subversive online memes and then morphed into a popular tattoo.

Other cartoon criminals include SpongeBob SquarePants, Scooby Doo, the Flintstones and a broad range of Japanese anime characters.

SAPPRFT (China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television) has been tasked with “vigilantly” controlling the masses exposure to “elements that are not conducive to the healthy development of cultural industries”.

What does this mean for multinational brands? It highlights the critical importance of bringing brands into alignment with another worldview – both political and cultural.  But are we confronting a tidal wave of new dangers?

Not quite.

First, Chinese censorship has always been strict. For years, global brands have managed to navigate the shoals of an opaque regulatory environment. True, mistakes have been made.

Back in 2000, a Pizza Hut ad for the Edge Pizza was banned for suggesting that a student, standing on his school desk waxing lyrical about the product’s “supreme” deliciousness, was “an alternative center of power.”

For the most part, however, marketers quickly develop a sixth sense on what will pass muster.

China’s censorship practices are actually rooted in Confucian values of the ancient wu lun, the rules governing social intercourse. Children must never sass parents. Marital relationships should be strife-free. And the patriarchic power of the Communist Party must never be questioned.

Second, party-led attacks on multinational brands is long-standing. The effects are usually evanescent.

During the Diaoyu island conflict, sales of Japanese products dropped. More recently, during the year-long dispute between Seoul and Beijing over the deployment of Thaad, a US missile shield, Korean brands were a tad taboo.

Self-inflicted public relations fiascos that “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” are even more common.

In 2006, Nike triggered outrage by airing a spot featuring Kobe Bryant slaying a dragon. And P&G suspended sales of its SK-II cosmetics brand a week after authorities found trace amounts of chromium and neodymium in the products.

The situation was exacerbated by clumsily defensive public relations. In 2014, Yum’s KFC was nearly toppled by a food safety scandal. In 2017, D&G stirred social media outrage with ads that depicted ordinary Chinese as déclassé.

But, once anger abates, normalcy returns. Chinese consumers are even more pragmatic than nationalistic. Superior value always wins the day.

That said, there is no room for complacency.

The best armor is a compelling and well-defined brand purpose, a consistent long-term relationship between consumer and brand that underpins all subsequent engagement with that brand. It articulates a brand’s calling and how it contributes to consumers’ lives.

SK-II overcame its scandal by elevating the brand’s purpose from functional anti-aging to an emotive “power to change your destiny.”  It resolved a conflict between women’s desire to both conform to conventional standards of beauty and escape the confines of societal expectations. The brand’s efforts were multidimensional. For example, it created a social movement to arm “left behinds” – unmarried women over the age of 27 – with the confidence to be beautiful at any age.

Brands must also be “customer obsessed”.

In an era of consumer empowerment fueled by technology, experience is king. From a delivery app that reveals courier location to facial recognition that generates tailored menu recommendations, KFC occupies a high ground of “seamless personalisation” within the quick service restaurant category.

Starbucks has overcome media brouhahas about tainted meat and price gouging. But business is booming – there are more than 3,000 stores across the PRC – because the brand offers inspired customer experience, not just coffee.

One example:  the cavernous 30,000 square-foot Starbucks Reserve Roastery, the first outside the Starbuck’s hometown of Seattle. There’s a two-story copper cask, a European-style bakery and augmented reality experiences sprinkled throughout.

In conclusion, despite China’s drive to promote “socialist values”, multinational brands can thrive by forging a culturally-meaningful brand purpose that defines the long-term relationship between consumer and brand and offering experience – not just product — that signals respect for Chinese consumers.

Tom Doctoroff is chief cultural insights officer at marketing consultancy Prophet


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