A Luxury Lesson in Ethical Marketing

Qing Wang, Prof of Marketing and Innovation at Warwick Business School, draws from the latest Gucci marketing mishap to call for a more empathetic approach when trying to connect with their customers.

The Bold and the beautiful

Luxury has always been synonymous with the rich and the powerful. As such, it is no surprise to see that this association with power passes on its immunity onto some of the brands in this prestige-centric sector.

Particularly in the field of advertising, luxury brands have long gotten away with their provocative and eccentric ads in the name of being creative, bold and cutting-edge. But not anymore. A long list of recent incidents has caused public outrage, suggesting the end of this so called immunity. What used to be considered “creativity” has now turned into “bad taste” or even “racist”. Some consumers will even be left questioning whether these ads or designs are deliberately so.

Another one bites the dust

Gucci’s troubles mark the latest in a string of missteps by luxury fashion brands. Its latest ‘Black balaclava jumper’ has prompted a backlash on social media, suggesting that it resembles Blackface – a theatrical practice which has a history of perpetuating offensive and racist stereotypes of African Americans, dating back more than 200 years in the United States.

The advertising faux pas is seen to echo the backlash Dolce & Gabbana received on its feature of the “slave sandal” in its spring/summer collection in 2016. As if it was not enough, D&G launched 3 racially driven videos in 2018, featuring a Chinese model’s attempts to eat Italian cuisine with chopsticks in a D&G dress. Ironically, the Italian brand was forced to cancel the very event that it was trying to promote through this – its Shanghai Fashion Show.

Another brand faced a similar crisis with the Chinese audience when a seemingly innocent ad campaign was perceived as something completely different by its audience. Burberry’s ad photo shoot for the Chinese lunar new year was likened to Asian horror films, leading to a blitz of criticism on its social media platforms.

Don’t play the game, play the audience

Irrespective of the context, the one thing that all of these ads have in common is the stereotypes they invoke and are a result of the brand’s lack of knowledge and empathy towards their target customers. Unfortunately, it is the very reason that differentiates a luxury brand from any normal brand.

Prestigious brands such as Gucci, D&G and Burberry are psychologically more distant than brands such as Coca Cola in an attempt to maintain exclusivity and desirability and, as such, the perception of luxury. These tactics and strategies worked for them in the past but in today’s day and age, it is a different ball game.

East is Eden

Prof. Qing Wang suggests that being more sensitive and respectful to the culture of different ethnic communities is in the best interests of the brands, especially since the demand for luxury products has tipped in favour of the Asian and African Markets of recent years. According to consulting firm McKinsey & Company, Chinese shoppers have emerged as one of the biggest forces in global luxury spending in recent years and by 2025, will account for 44 per cent of the total global market. As such, Luxury brands cannot afford to ignore them, much less alienate them as they have in the past.

It is for this reason that luxury brands should be careful in balancing the need for exclusivity and their emotional relationship with the target audience. They need to infuse more local knowledge into their global strategies and pay careful heed to what ticks off their customers. For even as more and more of the rich and powerful are being brought to accountability, how far behind might these brands be?

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