China Marketing and Crisis Management: Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them


Emerging Communications


Mar 9, 2023

For any marketing, communications, or PR professional there’s one thing we all want to avoid – a PR crisis.

Couple this with missteps in a foreign country, perhaps where you have limited first-hand experience of cultural sensitivities and national priorities, and you can forecast trouble ahead.

This is exactly the situation many western brands have found themselves in. From high-fashion brands like Dolce & Gabbana, Versace and Burberry to food chains, high-street clothing stores and airlines. PR mistakes in China just keep happening.

But why? What are the reasons why western brands fall foul of Chinese consumers, and how can you avoid the same fate?

Let’s take a look.

China branding: What Causes PR Crises in China?

Of course, there are so many reasons why a PR crisis might happen in China. It could be a rogue social media influencer, maybe your messaging has gone slightly off-track, or products aren’t meeting expectations. In general, though, there are four main drivers.

1. Misjudged pricing

In a world where high price tags often signal luxury and quality (especially with an eye towards Chinese Gen Z and high-net-worth consumers), this might be surprising.

But get your pricing wrong, and Chinese social media users aren’t scared to tell you.

For instance, one brand (who’ll remain nameless) advertised a bag on Tmall. They entered the wrong price for a Singles Day campaign – and received over 50,000 orders in 24 hours before the mistake was spotted. Not ideal!

Because the brand couldn’t fulfil these orders, thousands of customer complaints ensued. It took years to regain the respect of Chinese customers.

In another example of pricing gone awry, Starbucks was called out by Chinese TV and media for the price of their lattes. While a latte at a Beijing Starbucks cost 22 yuan, the same drink sold for the equivalent of 11 yuan in San Francisco. Adding to the PR headache, heated online discussions on social media sites like Weibo highlighted the issue further.

While Starbucks defended its China market pricing, its high-priced coffees left a bitter taste for many Chinese consumers.

2. Inaccurate claims and poor standards

Chinese legislation is incredibly tight on brands making promises they can’t deliver.

This includes false or misleading claims, for instance, a case where drinks brand “Genki Forest” found themselves in hot water over their “zero cane sugar” claims.

Customers also penalise brands that don’t match their high expectations in terms of food safety, product quality and customer service. The case of the upmarket artisanal French boulangerie chain “Farine Bakery” shows how quickly this can escalate.

An employee accused the business of various health code violations, particularly the use of flour beyond its expiry date. The initial Weibo post gained over 1 million views, with mentions of Farine on WeChat soaring to over 6 million within 24 hours.

While public outrage eventually simmered down, it shows how international brands must conform to high levels of public scrutiny and standards – and act quickly if anything goes wrong.

3. Mishandling customer complaints

This is one of the most common causes of PR crises. In good news though, it’s also the most avoidable!

To understand what not to do, consider Virgin Atlantic. The airline lost sales and respect in China over time, following a Chinese passenger complaint that wasn’t dealt with promptly. Their grievance went viral on social media and severely damaged the brand’s reputation.

We also mentioned Genki Forest. Appropriately dealt with, the crisis surrounding possibly misleading packaging claims might have gone away quickly. Instead, the brand angered Chinese consumers with a perceived inauthentic apology on Zhihu, suggesting the brand was unaware of the potential for misunderstanding between “zero cane sugar” and “zero sugar”. Like Virgin Atlantic, this damaged the brand’s reputation and sales across the China market.

4. Cultural insensitivities in Chinese marketing campaigns

You probably remember the debacle surrounding Dolce and Gabbana’s China marketing a few years ago. It featured a Chinese woman struggling to eat pizza with chopsticks, the campaign massively backfired and alienated Chinese and western consumers alike.

It’s a classic example of brands not understanding cultural sensitivities and actively causing their own PR crisis. It’s also the most serious form of crisis because it can lead to boycotts and the inability to regain Chinese consumers’ hearts and minds.

How to Prevent a PR Crisis in China: Five Strategies

So, with a thorough understanding of why a PR crisis might happen in China, how can you avoid them?

While the best solution is simply prevention, we know in today’s complex and politicised world, this is easier said than done. If your brand finds itself in trouble, it’s all about managing the crisis quickly and decisively. Here are five strategies to employ:

1. Perform regular social monitoring

Measuring consumer sentiment regularly is vital. Specialist China marketing agencies (like us at Emerging Comms!) can help you monitor sentiment across all your digital channels.

With advance warning of any potential issues, you’ll have a head-start when putting your “crisis management plan” into action.

2. Deal with issues immediately

This almost goes without saying, but if you’re dealing with Chinese social media, it’s essential to read and answer all comments and interactions with your brand.

If anything negative crops up, take discussions off public platforms. Instead, see how you can help your consumers through private messaging platforms like WeChat.

3. Work with a dedicated customer service team in China

Have you ever tried to get a complex problem solved by someone in a call centre halfway around the world? It can be tricky to say the least.

Well, Chinese consumers feel the same.

Ensure you have a dedicated customer services team (or person) in China and that they’re contactable via your verified social media channels. WeChat is especially important, so any complaints aren’t voiced in the public sphere.

4. Create a crisis management plan

Fail to plan, plan to…?

Create a thorough crisis management plan that covers all your official communication channels and Chinese social media accounts. Reputation management is key, which involves actively controlling your social media accounts as well as investigating and evaluating any issues (as soon as they arise).

Once you’ve understood the problem, follow-up with an appropriate response outlining the steps you’ll take to prevent further negative impact. It might even be possible to turn a negative situation into a positive (for instance with the help of PR agencies or social influencers).

But whatever your strategy, the important thing is planning ahead – before a crisis happens.

5. Work alongside a specialist Chinese marketing agency

Finally, work with a specialist Chinese marketing agency to write and implement your Chinese marketing campaigns. Whether it’s smaller issues like accurate translations or larger insights into cultural sensitivities (that could have prevented many of the crises above!), you can launch campaigns with confidence.

As well as creating and fine-tuning your Chinese strategy, a dedicated agency can help you gain access to the right influencers and provide in-depth knowledge on the best ways to use Chinese social media platforms.