Why cultural awareness is essential for Western Brands

With a population of around 1.4 billion, China is clearly an attractive market for Western brands – not only for their potential consumers, but their social channels as well. Sina Weibo, branded the Twitter of China, amasses 515 million monthly active users – not bad. But if it was easy to target this audience, wouldn’t every brand in the world be trying to crack the market? 

The biggest problem Western brands have is understanding the culture, with many facing social-fuelled backlashes from a lack of cultural sensitivity. But this doesn’t have to be a problem. It’s no different from building a campaign in the UK – you wouldn’t create it without doing your research. Success is created through acknowledging culture, the audience and building real connections. So how do we get there? 

The importance of understanding 

No culture is the same – a simple statement, but a true one. Each society, whether in the UK or China, forms their culture through what people experience themselves and what they learn from others along the way. For brands, it’s not so easy. They need to know and familiarise themselves with every culture – especially if they’re a global brand like Nike or Gucci. HSBC’s “Snake” sums up knowing your audience perfectly. 

Immersing your brand in culture isn’t playing off of stereotypes, as this can easily cause offence. Take Chinese New Year for an example, it’s simple for brands to use red and gold with lanterns – that’s why brands often miss the mark, opting for appropriation in comparison to appreciation. When a brand puts in time to truly understand the culture and traditions of their target audience, the results are inevitable. In 2020, Nike revealed their Lunar New Year campaign, The Great Chase. The campaign honoured the tradition of 红包 (hongbao), where money is gifted in small red envelopes. A small insight into one famous tradition, turned a good campaign into a great campaign that everyone could relate to.

But other brands are not finding it that easy. Balenciaga felt the backlash from Weibo as they released their Valentine’s Campaign for Qixi Festival. The luxury brand released their campaign posters on Tmall to announce their latest four colour-way collection of hourglass handbags. Not only were the ads branded tasteless, Weibo users also felt the ads lacked an understanding of culture, and were created to simply ingratiate with the consumer. In fact a hashtag on Weibo, that translates to BalenciagaInsultsChinese, generated over 6000 discussions and 150 million views. 

Two huge brands. Two completely different outcomes. But it shows what can happen when a brand gets it wrong, and shows the importance of understanding cultural and social behaviour. So how can brands set themselves up for success? 

Using social listening to inspire strategic actions 

While it might look like Balenciaga got it wrong, they actually undertook a lot of research for their campaign. Their aim was to find out what “Gen-zers” found cool, and that’s exactly what the campaign was built on. Their target audience appreciated it, but wider audiences who gained access to this hyper-targeted campaign were less appreciative. That’s exactly why social listening and data is so important for building the best strategic plan. Social listening is the process of monitoring social media conversations about brands, competitors, landscape, category, and products. But it also goes beyond social monitoring with natural language processing, helping brands to understand consumers’ attitudes towards brands, their products and their competitors. 

Why is understanding so important?

Culture reigns supreme in this market, and success is driven by how well brands build a connection through emotion. Experimentation, and taking a chance is not a risk worth taking with Asian consumers, especially with an abundance of data available at our finger tips. Social listening offers us the what, it analyses everything it has access to, and eventually provides unique behavioural insights for your audiences.

If brands are hesitant to enter the space, it’s understandable, but there’s no reason to be. As long as you’ve done your research and embraced the culture, there’s 500 million users on Weibo waiting. While not everyone will always be happy with what you create, as shown by Balenciaga, the audience you’re targeting often will. You just need to find the emotional connection that aligns your brand – whether on a local, or global scale.