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Asia Business Development – Asia Business Consulting » Disasters in Asian Marketing

SpirE-Journal 2011 Q1

Disasters in Asian Marketing

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Disasters in Asian Marketing

Just as a great marketing campaign can make a brand, a marketing disaster can break it. The recent ban of a McDonald’s television advertisement in the Philippines and the controversy around the Facebook “love story” ad in Singapore has posed the question anew – can we bring the risk of a brand-degrading marketing disaster down to zero? And what should be done differently in Asia’s complex cultural environment?

In April 2011, a McDonald’s TV ad was banned in the Philippines, after protests by local religious leaders. The ad depicted two children in a situation which suggested intimacy. The ban comes after a similar controversy over a six year old boy mimicking a lewd dance on the country’s most popular TV game show. Although the fast-food chain said that its advertisement strove to highlight positive values such as love for family and charity, church leaders claimed it cheapened human relationships. 

In Singapore, what was initially support for a “couple” documenting obstacles in their relationship on Facebook turned to anger when it was revealed that the postings were part of an insurance marketing campaign. Netizens lashed out at the campaign on the couple’s Facebook page, calling the stunt an “epic fail” and the “worst marketing,” among other things. 

History bears witness to many marketing campaigns that had disastrous results that damaged the brands they were meant to promote. Such disasters are not a thing of the past. They continue to happen to large, world-class companies. What can we learn from surveying the mis-steps of the past?

In 2005, Volkswagen released a commercial that was later withdrawn due to perceived racial stereotyping.
Marketing disasters defined

Marketing disasters can be defined as failures in creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging value-laden offerings. They are usually associated with some damage being done to the brand which was meant to be grown by the campaign. Be it a publicity stunt or a highly controversial ad, marketing disasters brings negative attention to a brand and the people charged with protecting it. The risk of disasters has been fuelled by rise of social media, where a “scandal” often attracts great interest and vitriolic commentary. All too frequently, marketing disasters lead to brand degradation, product boycotts or even calls for senior executives to resign. 

Types of disasters

Marketing disasters can be categorized into various types. 


Translation blunders might seem funny, but are all the more damaging for that reason. Derision rapidly follows confusion if a brand’s tag line does not mean what it should. When Coca-Cola first entered the China market it famously suffered from a translation disaster. Before Coca-Cola’s official entry into China, some shopkeepers independently created signs with Chinese characters that sounded like “Coca-Cola” but had nonsensical meanings such as “bite the wax tadpole” and “female horse stuffed with wax.” However, Coca-Cola understood the importance of defending its brand in international markets. Before officially entering China in 1982, the beverage icon took great pains to ensure its brand would not be proverbially “lost in translation.” Ultimately, the company chose the characters pronounced “K’o K’ou K’o Lê,” which literally mean, “let the mouth rejoice” or “happiness in the mouth. ” 

Does sex sell? 

Sexual imagery has a history of being used by advertisers to grab a viewer’s attention. Apparel brands like Calvin Klein are known to run ads with strong sexual connotations. In 2009, the blue-jeans giant unveiled a jumbo billboard ad that portrayed two young men and a young woman entwined in a semi-nude threesome, as another man undressed. This was subsequently claimed by some to be soft pornography. Calvin Klein has had a number of ad spots pulled from television in the US, and just last year saw an ad starring actress Eva Mendes banned for explicit content. While the attention generated by such events may go down well with some customer segments, it may alienate others, while also damaging campaign schedules and budgets. 


Multi-ethnic representation is a hallmark of good international advertising these days. Some evidence suggests that failure to build relationships with particular ethnic groups is shutting many companies out of vital and fast-growing consumer markets. However, things can go wrong with “ethnic advertising” in more ways than one. For one thing, it is crucial for an ad not to present the physical or other attributes of a certain ethnic group in a way that might be seen as derogatory. 

In 2005, Volkswagen released a commercial that was later withdrawn due to perceived racial stereotyping. It featured a terrorist, strapped with explosives, driving his new Volkswagen Polo to a restaurant. While inside the car, he detonates the bomb, but it only kills the terrorist as the car fails to explode. The message of the ad? That the VW Polo was “small but tough.” The ad was removed amidst furious protests about how the terrorist stereotyped and denigrated a particular ethnic group. 

While the Polo ad had not been meant to reach out to that ethnic group, the fact that it was offensive to any group meant that it was widely seen as unacceptable. This shows how avoiding offense to any race is nowadays important in winning acceptance among all races. 


A good example of a religious marketing disaster would be the publication of caricatures of the Muslim religious figure, Prophet Muhammad, by a Danish newspaper, which caused an uproar in the Muslim world. While this action was not an advertising campaign as such, it impacted brands from Denmark and Europe in the Middle East market. The Danish manufacturer, Arla Foods, which normally sells $1.5 million worth of dairy products a day in the Middle East region, announced that its sales there had come to a halt at the height of the controversy. The furore over the McDonald’s ad in the Philippines that was discussed above also underlines the risk of offending religious sensibilities. 


Carrefour, the second largest retailer in the world, suffered from a massive public backlash against French products in China in 2008. The movement arose as a result of the French President agreeing to meet with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan religious leader blamed by Beijing for separatism. This was not the first case of a nationalist backlash against specific brands in China, nor will it be the last. 

Toshiba was embroiled in a similar controversy in 2000. China’s state-owned media attacked the Japanese brand for allegedly discriminating against Chinese customers by not compensating them for a malfunction in some of their notebook computers. Toshiba’s share of the Chinese notebook market dropped from 19.4% in the first quarter of 2000 to 15.4% in the second. General anti-Japanese sentiments worsened a bad situation. According to the BBC’s China analyst Shirong Chen, nationalist sentiment is running very high in the country at the moment. 

Public Relations disasters 

In February 2011, Christian Dior, the founder and owner of the high-end apparel line Dior, fired his star designer John Galliano, following allegations that he made anti-Semitic comments on several occasions. His sacking came ahead of Dior’s presentation at Paris Fashion Week on 4 March 2011. 

The incident initially triggered hostility towards the Dior brand. One of its celebrity ambassadors, Natalie Portman, publicly distanced herself from Galliano. This underlines how the personal conduct of senior staff can be as disastrous as a bad campaign. However, Dior’s swift corrective action more or less defused the situation.

The wise brand owner would tap on their employees in each country as the first and best source of feedback on potential marketing disasters.
Conclusion – managing the risks

As this brief survey shows, marketing disasters can just as easily come about through factors outside the control of a brand owner. How can any brand owner control situations like political tensions involving its parent country? However, not all hope is lost. 

Firstly, brand owners must test campaigns before launch, as well as track brand health and social media chatter afterwards. Too many brand owners do not take this responsibility seriously enough. On this front, working with a market research firm that can provide integrated market entry, brand health and social media research is highly advisable. 

Secondly, when disaster strikes, brand owners with a disaster management process in place within their marketing department would be best placed to ride out the storm. Such a process would need to ensure fast access to public relations advice on crisis management – waiting for a crisis to strike before engaging the right PR vendor is too late. The wise brand owner would tap on their employees in each country as the first and best source of feedback on potential marketing disasters. 

Thirdly, the wise brand owner would tap on their employees in each country as the first and best source of feedback on potential marketing disasters. Companies should fully mine internal opinions on future and current campaigns, testing for potential disasters from all angles. This could be done through internal surveying or focus groups. Doing this well hinges on creating a climate where employees can share frank opinions about the company’s products and messaging. 

The rules for avoiding marketing disasters in Asia are no different from those that apply to any other region. However, Asia presents a unique mix of potential pitfalls. For one thing, the region is very heterogeneous, with a mix of religions, political structures and cultures across markets – unlike the European Union and North America which have more intra-region commonalities in terms of language, laws, politics and values. For another thing, many emerging Asian countries are undergoing slow moves towards more open politics – a development that can lead to sudden shifts in public opinion around issues that ignite controversy online. 

Asian marketers need to find a comfort zone where they can articulate a clear, differentiated message about their brands while staying clear of the hot buttons that lead to marketing disasters.

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