Brand Blunder #97: Mercedes ad backfires in China

Brand Blunders of the cultural kind continue to plague global brands.

German car manufacturer Mercedes is the latest to demonstrate cultural insensitivity, posting to Chinese Instagram an ad quoting exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

The Chinese government – and many Chinese citizens – consider the Dalai Lama a political agitator.  So, “becoming more open” to his teachings isn’t on the local agenda.

Mercedes deleted the Instagram post soon after its error became apparent.  But it then compounded the situation by fumbling the apology.

On its official Weibo account, Mercedes said it was concerned about “a very wrongful message from our company on international social media”.  It said it was “very aware of the harm caused by this incident to the Chinese people” and that “taking this as a guide, we will immediately take practical actions to deepen our understanding of Chinese culture and values, including our overseas colleagues, and to regulate our actions so as to prevent such incidents from happening again.”

Chinese netizens were angered by what they considered a vague reference to a now-inaccessible Instagram post, that the company had not apologised on Instagram, and that Mercedes had disabled responses to its Weibo apology.

Quoted in Campaign AP, Shann Biglione, chief strategy officer for business transformation at Publicis Media Greater China said of the incident:

“It’s unprofessional… International brands would consider implications [of their marketing] in other major nations, why not China? It’s not like there are a gazillion points to know about, and if in doubt, just check with a China team. Take the Dalai Lama, he regularly makes the news when any state receives him. This is not a hidden secret.”

Even when such social media materials are published outside of China, they must be considered and weighted, he stressed.


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