Brands’ China Gaffes Lead to Groveling Apologies

Thom Weidlich 02.15.18


The past month, several big-name brands — including Mercedes-Benz, Marriott, and Delta — were caught erring in a way that offended the people and government of China. The companies were forced to engage in fawning apologies. These incidents point to the importance of caution when doing business in that country. At the same time, blowback may come because not everyone agrees with China’s policies.

Obviously, it’s best to avoid such flubs in China, but if they do happen, it’s clear the apologies require clarity, flattery, and a willingness to side with the nation in some pretty heated political disputes. That is, if one wants to maintain access to that gargantuan market.

In the most recent example, Daimler’s Mercedes posted a photo on Instagram that included a quote from the Dalai Lama. The Chinese, of course, view the Tibetan spiritual leader as a separatist opposed to China.

Mercedes, which last year sold almost 500,000 vehicles in the Asian country,  immediately pulled the ad and posted an apology (for the “extremely erroneous message”) on Weibo, the Chinese social-media site. The company apologized three times in its 122-word statement.  “We fully understand how it has hurt the feelings of people in this country,” the German luxury-car brand wrote, according to a translation on Medium.


We fully understand how it has hurt the feelings of people in this country.

— Mercedes

Mercedes also noted what it would do to rectify the blunder (always important in an apology): “Taking this incident as a guide, we will immediately take practical actions to deepen our understanding of Chinese culture and values  —  including for our overseas colleagues  —  and regulate our behavior to prevent such incidents from occurring again.”

But apparently that wasn’t good enough. The People’s Daily official newspaper wrote that “the apology lacks sincerity.” Mercedes apologized again, according to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency. On Feb. 7, Daimler’s chairman and the chairman of its China operation wrote to the Chinese ambassador to Germany, emphasizing the company’s respect for Chinese territorial integrity.

‘Corporate America’

But the politics and ethics of this are difficult. Many people in the West oppose China’s communist government and support the Dalai Lama. At a hearing on Tibet yesterday, two Republican lawmakers criticized Mercedes (and Delta) for apologizing to China. “Corporate America needs to get more of a backbone,” Florida senator Marco Rubio said.

China is clearly upping its effort to defend its sovereignty by targeting companies that list on their websites Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Tibet as territories rather than as part of Greater China. Companies recently whacked for such missteps include Australian airline Qantas, U.S. medical-equipment maker Medtronic, and Spanish clothing company Zara.


Marriott International respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.

— Marriott

Also, Marriott. In January, the hotel chain sent out a Chinese-language survey to customers in which it listed Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Tibet as options for the respondents’ country. Weibo users called for a boycott.

Marriott, which has more than 250 locations in China and is planning many more, apologized Jan. 11 through a tweet: “Marriott International respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. We don’t support separatist groups that subvert the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.”

‘Rectification Plan’

Still, Chinese authorities, declaring that the company had “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” shuttered Marriott’s website and smartphone app for a week. After that, according to China Daily, the company made an intelligent move and developed an eight-point “rectification plan,” which included expanded employee training and a complaint channel.

On Jan. 12, Chinese authorities lambasted Delta Air Lines for listing Taiwan and Tibet on its website as separate countries. The apology came quickly: “Delta recognizes the seriousness of this issue and we took immediate steps to resolve it. It was an inadvertent error with no business or political intention, and we apologize deeply for the mistake. As one of our most important markets, we are fully committed to China and to our Chinese customers.”

Clearly, marketers are well advised to avoid these mistakes lest they also need to prostrate themselves before the Asian economic giant — and then get flogged by China critics.

Photo Credit: Alex Cuesta Fernandez/Shutterstock

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