Beauty brand Lancôme’s management of the ongoing crisis surrounding its cancelling of a concert in Hong Kong due to pressure from media and netizens in China has been riddled with "several missteps", according to a leading PR practitioner.
Emma Smith, Asia CEO of MHP Communications, said the issue has exploded into a brand crisis partly as a result of Lancôme’s handling of the situation.
The issue began when Lancôme, owned by L’Oreal, announced it was cancelling a concert in Hong Kong on Sunday night, featuring Denise Ho and other performers, following stinging criticism from China for putting Ho on the bill.
Ho is known for her pro-democracy views and made headlines as the first celebrity to be arrested at the 2014 so-called ‘umbrella movement’ protests in central Hong Kong, the biggest display of anti-Chinese sentiment in the protectorate since the British handed Hong Kong back to the Chinese in 1997.
State-backed Chinese tabloid Global Times asked readers to share their views on Ho’s invitation to perform at the Lancôme concert, which saw a hugh backlash on Weibo with people calling for a boycott of Lancôme products.
Shortly after, Lancôme issued a statement apologising and clarifying that Ho was not a brand ambassador. Not long after, a second release was issued saying the concert had been cancelled "due to possible safety reasons".
This, in turn, has sparked outrage in Hong Kong, with consumers viewing Lancôme as bowing to China’s will. Ho herself released a lengthy statement in Chinese condemning Lancôme’s actions, and Hong Kongers are now also calling for boycotts of both Lancôme and L’Oreal products.
Smith said the incident has been poorly handled from the start.
"If 23 percent of Lancôme’s global business comes from China, and this is a top priority market, why was Denise Ho invited in the first place? That demonstrates a lack of local knowledge and insensitivity to current affairs," she told PRWeek Asia.
"Second is Lancôme’s overreaction to online commentary and the Global Times article. The issuing of a statement essentially escalated the situation and turned a gossipy topic into a crisis – if Lancôme had waited for a couple of days, the noise would have possibly died down in China."
Smith said the statement and the decision to pull a purely music-focused event has resulted in upsetting both Hong Kong and China consumers and potential customers. "To consumers in China, the action isn’t enough; to consumers in Hong Kong, they surrendered to pressure."
Moreover, Lancôme may have reacted too quickly to online noise without considering through the full consequences.
"The question is, are those who can afford Lancôme in China likely to be that sensitive about a Hong Kong singer taking part in a concert in Hong Kong that they will stop buying its products?" said Smith.
"Compared to Chinese netizens, Hong Kong netizens are more likely to boycott brands for political reasons."
Consumers in Hong Kong are so up in arms with Lancôme’s actions that they are digging deeper to find and share other negative articles about the brand and its parent L’Oreal, such as allegations of animal testing.
"This does more real harm to the brand than allowing a singer to perform at a one-off event," Smith said.