Photo by STIL on Unsplash

Over the last several months, Burberry, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana lost in the court of public opinion for the crime of cultural insensitivity.

Such mistakes can mean monetary losses through boycotts as well as misspent advertising and product development advertising costs. Another potential loss is the trust and loyalty of consumers. A brand’s tarnished reputation can mean that it’s in danger of losing its “luxe.”

However, these offenses are so obvious, how could many talented, experienced, and well-trained people allow them to get out of the door?

One example of an ad that turned out to be grossly offensive to its target audience was Dolce & Gabbana’s “Eating with Chopsticks” commercials. The ads which were posted over Chinese social media network Weibo featured an Asian model using chopsticks to eat Italian food.

The ads were originally meant to be funny, but the Chinese didn’t see the humor and considered the ads racist, disrespectful and sexist. The commercials were immediately pulled down and replaced with Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana’s apology video to Weibo.

However, news leaked that @stefanogabbana, on his Instagram account, defended the ads, saying that the problem wasn’t the ad, but the people viewing them. Immediately retailers and online websites withdrew Dolce & Gabbana products. To make matters worse, celebrities and models backed out of the planned fashion show, eventually leading to its cancellation.

The Los Angeles Times reported a London-based Brand Finance estimate that the fiasco would cut Dolce & Gabbana’s brand value by 20% from its current estimate of $937 million. Dolce & Gabbana has many fences to mend.

Luxury brands’ culture problems

These obvious examples of cultural insensitivity suggest a deeper problem in luxury brand culture.

Carlos Torellia, a University of Illinois professor, said that “just hiring for diversity means nothing if brands don’t use that diversity effectively.” For example, the Dolce & Gabbana ad problem could have been avoided if just one Chinese national reviewed the films before its release.  

It seems the powers in luxury brands don’t listen when the message is against the grain. Even listening is not enough, they should “give voice to their people,” in order to avoid future mistakes.

The Danger in street trend

Aside from cultural transgressions, there is a potential danger as luxury brands move further into street culture.

The late, great Karl Lagerfeld had a word of advice for brands moving too fast onto the street trend. “Trendy is the last stage before tacky.”

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel has also said that tacky is tasteless and almost vulgar which is the opposite of luxury.

Luxury brands must get back to being classy across all cultural boundaries. Vincent Bastien and Jean-Noël Kapferer, in their seminal book The Luxury Strategy, distinguished the luxury strategy from the fashion one as follows:

“The luxury strategy aims at creating the highest brand value and pricing power by leveraging all intangible elements of singularity- i.e. time, heritage, country of origin, craftsmanship, man-made, small series, prestigious clients,” according to the book.

On the other hand, fashion strategy does not consider those classic luxury factors. It is about selling something that is “fashionable, which is to say, a very perishable value.”

And luxury strategies are the ways to sell luxury brands to high-end customers.  Apply a lasting cure instead of just treating the symptoms of diversity and inclusivity problem.  Go back to the timeless and higher standards of taste required for all that claim to be luxury brands.