Lessons from the Dolce & Gabbana Backlash in China

Dolce & Gabbana products are being shelved by Chinese e-commerce sites amid a spiraling backlash from their advertising campaign. Celebrities and netizens have been quick to label the ad as “racist” and “insensitive” to the Chinese community.

The ads, released earlier last week, were meant hype up an upcoming fashion show in Shanghai. Featured in the ad was a Chinese woman struggling to eat pizza and pasta with chopsticks, sparking criticism from viewers.

Further adding to the fiasco were screenshots that were circulated online – those of a private conversation, where brand designer Stefano Gabbana made a reference to “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia” while using the smiling poop emoji to describe the country.

The brand denied their involvement, stating that their account was hacked.

Post by D&G on Weibo distances Stefano Gabbana from an Instagram message referring to the ad. Weibo

The aftermath forced the giants to call off the fashion show. Furthermore, amid calls for a boycott, the uproar has set Italy’s best-known fashion brand on the backburner in a crucial market, where rivals like Louis Vuitton and Gucci are looking to expand.

China makes up more than a third of spending on luxury products, and is deemed the largest E-commerce market in the world. The mistakes made by Dolce & Gabbana has given us a few takeaways to conducting business internationally.

To highlight what they missed out on and how they could’ve fared better, here are 3 key takeaways from the Dolce & Gabbana fiasco in China.

1. Be Sensitive To Cultural Differences 

The new millennia has brought forth a wave of political correctness – and with it, another chapter to consider for marketeers and businesses.

The issue here isn’t exclusive to Dolce & Gabanna, but as major retailers, they were expected to ‘know better’.

Sindy Liu, a London-based luxury marketing consultant comments on the fiasco, stating that “a lot of Western brands don’t really understand China that well when it comes to cultural sensitivities. Most brands are careful, they don’t do things that are humorous.”

China maintains an exclusive style in their branding and marketing. Even E-sports giants, Valve, have amended their world-famous game, DoTA 2, to fit the Chinese market.

This all points to the disparity between Asian and Western markets. What one may find interesting and funny may be offensive and distasteful to another.

The Dolce & Gabbana backlash has taught us that, when dealing with markets, especially Asian ones, it is important to understand their boundaries, cultures and beliefs before proceeding.

2. Be Quick To Clean Up A Mess [restrict]

Perhaps the brand could be forgiven for a one-off mistake – had Stefano Gabbana not made a scene on social media.

Furthering this were the Instagram screenshots that showed Gabbana referring to China with crude terms. While he has stated that this was a hoax, it did not bode well with many people.

When the official apology was finally issued, most were unsure of what to think. Some users joked that the apology itself was a hoax, while others flocked to flame the brand’s founders.

Damage control can be tricky when you’re in hot water, but it should be done duly. A good example of damage control can be found in this article, where Maxis Malaysia was quick to address their customers amid a controversial video that surfaced on Facebook.

Had Dolce & Gabbana been quick to apologize and fight of stirring rumors, the public would have been much more forgiving towards them.

Actress Zhang Ziyi has been quick to distance herself from D&G after their ad was released.

Their inability to do so has cost the brand more than just sales. Actors like Zhang Ziyi have chosen to distance themselves from the brand. Actress Dilireba and Chinese pop idol Karry Wang have also informed the company that they will cease to continue working with them.

3. Realize That You’re Never Too Big To Fail

When sales are thriving, business owners tend to get carried away by their success. It seems, success brings about the notion that failure has passed and will not happen.

Where China is concerned is that consumers are spoilt for choice. As the leading market for e-commerce, if consumers are unhappy with your brand, they will have no problem hopping on to competitors’ products.

This places an emphasis, not just on 1. Cultural Sensitivity, but on consumer satisfaction too. The “take it or leave it” strategy is becoming extinct as exclusivity becomes less important.

This is evident, where following the fiasco, most major e-commerce retailers dropped the brand’s products without hesitation. They were confident enough to know that losing a major luxury brand was not going to cost them much anyways.


Controversial comments by designers can be devastating for luxury brands. The brand’s image, sales and trust are all tarnished in the process.

For Dolce & Gabbana, what started as a light-hearted joke to promote a catwalk show eventually became a huge controversy.

Questions regarding the approval and publication of the ad are still to be answered. Social media aside, their inability to understand China’s culture was the main issue that led to all this.

Actionable Takeaway:

For business owners, the takeaway here is to research and understand consumer behaviour before proceeding. Even in local market segments, understanding your consumers – what is appropriate and not – is a crucial aspect of positive customer engagement.



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