Bottega Veneta’s Qixi film — which cast same-sex couples to portray the inclusivity of love — resonated greatly among Chinese audiences. Themed as “Love, in motion,” the film spotlighted three couples (including gay men, lesbians, and a straight couple) cycling the alleyways and countryside of Qingdao, a port city in eastern Shandong province. Yida, a Shanghai-based PR professional who belongs to the LGBTQ community, told Jing Daily how he and his friends adored the storytelling and visual production of this campaign.
This is not the first time that luxury brands have experimented with LGBTQ marketing in China. Cartier featured a gay couple in its Valentine’s Day-themed campaign in 2020, but it faced online mockery due to its inappropriate explanation of the couple as “father-and-son.” As Yida explained, this “made the campaign look very unauthentic. As if they would rather not touch upon the topic.”
China has the biggest LGBTQ population in the world (around 75 million) and the strongest purchasing power — totaling up to $636 billion (4.3 trillion RMB) as of 2019, according to corporate advisory LGBT Capital. Still, this demographic is underrepresented in campaigns as global companies tend to take a prudent stance when it comes to communicating with the local LGBTQ community. It doesn’t help that governmental cultural “guidance” on this discourse has also tightened since 2016, when local authorities stated that films, television shows, and online programs should avoid gay themes or characters.
Below, Jing Daily dissects the current socio-political background around this culture while looking at some dos and don’ts of rainbow marketing in China.
Breaking down social context
China, shaped by traditional Confucian culture for thousands of years, was never a hotbed of queer activism. However, there was a period of time in the late 1990s and the early 2000s when gay clubs flourished and NGOs started to advocate for gay rights. In 2009, Shanghai Pride was founded and became the first and largest LGBTQ event in the mainland. But in 2020, it abruptly announced its closure — a prominent sign of the elevated clampdown on LGBTQ rights.
There are multiple reasons explaining the cancellation. The current central government has set a tone for a more conservative, conformist China, reflected in policies such as the three-child allowance and the ban of what they term “sissy men and other abnormal esthetics” on TV. Stronger censorship has also hit the LGBTQ community, with the WeChat accounts of several LGBTQ associations at the nation’s prestigious universities (including Tsinghua and Peking) going dark last year.
On the other hand, discussion of this topic is no longer confined to underground communities. “I can see stronger awareness and more support in the last three to four years,” Yida tells Jing Daily. “Though there have been stricter restrictions on relevant content on social media, people’s overall understanding of the discourse has improved and the arena of public opinion is more friendly.”
This open-mindedness is evident in netizens’ reactions to brand collaborations with celebrities and KOLs from the LGBTQ community. Marjolaine Moret, a Hong Kong-based independent consultant who focuses on intercultural marketing, took Dior’s collab with the openly transgender TV icon Jin Xing as an example of positive change. Domestic audiences’ support for this partnership indicates that “younger generations, especially Gen Z and Millenials, are increasingly tolerant on this topic,” says Moret.
Starting with baby steps
That said, Dior’s team-up with Jin was one-off, and she was just one part of the fashion powerhouse’s extensive celebrity matrix in China. Not every firm has the same capability to bet on such an initiative. As Hoang Nguyen, a senior consultant at Daxue Consulting, suggests, “brands should take it one step at a time on this matter, given the dominance of the Chinese government’s policy and the huge part of the population who may still feel uncomfortable with this dialogue.”
Overall, luxury houses have been cautious. Bottega Veneta’s Qixi project won over both LGBTQ insiders and general consumers due to a consistent brand image featuring discreet elegance and the inclusive expression of love. This approach aligns with Moret’s proposal — that “brands need to find a way to approach the LGBTQ community by addressing pertinent topics indirectly, for example, targeting everyone and not the community only, and promoting equality for all, self-expression, and universal love.” These communication pillars, which stretch beyond gender and sexual orientation, are more feasible than targeted, hardcore activism in China.
While small steps are well-received by local consumers, consistent support for the community is even better. Yida admitted there are businesses capitalizing on rainbow marketing, but believes that “if a brand maintains being vocal and supportive, it reflects commitment of said brand and its team.”
Thinking beyond rainbow logos
When it comes to LGBTQ culture, the rainbow symbol might be the first thing that comes to marketers’ minds. However, there are no shortcuts to this community. Mounting rainbow flags and rolling out exclusive collections with multicolored prints during Pride month will not work in China. For one, there’s the worry of rainbow-washing where “brands slap a rainbow flag sticker on their products in hopes of increasing June sales without putting any real effort in,” explains Cory Schröder, Senior Content Marketing Manager at marketing solution provider Latana.
Instead, companies need to contribute to community causes. A prime example is the range of collaborators that supported Voguing Shanghai, the first voguing and ballroom culture platform in the mainland. Among them were Beats, Fenty Beauty, and Farfetch. Above all, Schröder highlights the importance of localization. “You can’t just copy examples from other countries. The companies overseas have to prove they do care about Chinese consumers by understanding the contemporary language of China.”
Alongside storytelling and media representation, organizations must do the hard work behind the scenes. As Nguyen comments, “a brand’s efforts should also be quantified by internal activities and their results.” This means creating a non-discriminatory environment for employees.
While the words of advertising campaigns are, of course, important, a company’s actions can speak louder. If your brand is not prepared to support the community, do not pretend that you are.