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Global business: Xiangpiaopiao’s anti-Japan packaging shows risks of mixing nationalism in marketing


Nationalistic marketing is a delicate and potentially risky endeavor.
The patriotic film "Wolf Warrior" was a huge hit at the box office. But not every attempt to capitalize on nationalist sentiment pays off.
 

COMMENTARY

 

By LI RUOJIA

Global Business Journalism reporter


In today's hyperconnected world, brands must tread carefully when navigating sensitive nationalist and political issues in their marketing strategies. The recent controversy surrounding Chinese beverage company Xiangpiaopiao serves as a cautionary tale for businesses seeking to capitalize on public sentiment.


Xiangpiaopiao found itself at the center of a social media storm when a Weibo user discovered that the packaging of its Meco juice-tea beverage featured text mocking Japan's release of nuclear-contaminated water.


Nationalistic marketing is a delicate and potentially risky endeavor.
Xiangpiaopiao Meco juice-tea beverage

The incident quickly went viral, and Xiangpiaopiao seized the opportunity, labeling the product as a "national treasure" on its Taobao storefront. In that day’s live stream, the CEO of Xiangpiaopiao promised to reward its employees while donating the day's sales to an environmental foundation. The strategy appeared to pay off, as the live stream generated over 1 million RMB in sales and the company's stock price soared.

 

However, the success was short-lived. Media scrutiny revealed that the anti-Japan packaging was never actually sold in the Japanese store. While some consumers defended Xiangpiaopiao's tactics as a legitimate marketing strategy, others criticized the company for exploiting public patriotism. Hu Xijin, a well-known Chinese journalist and social media influencer, criticized Xiangpiaopiao for deceiving the public and abusing patriotic sentiments.

 

Investors are scared of public opinion, and consumers gradually lost their interest in MECO. The sales of Meco plummeted, and Xiangpiaopiao's stock price took a significant hit.

 

This incident underscores the double-edged sword of leveraging nationalist sentiment in marketing. Even though Xiangpiaopiao successfully tapped into the growing tide of Chinese patriotism and anti-Japan sentiment, driving a surge in sales, the perceived inauthenticity and controversy surrounding the campaign severely damaged the company's reputation, undermining the long-term value of its brand.

 

It is not an isolated incident. In recent years, several global brands have faced backlash for misjudging the sensitivity of nationalist issues in their marketing.


Nationalistic marketing is a delicate and potentially risky endeavor.
A tweet from a Houston Rockets executive created a massive backlash from the Chinese government that rocked NBA marketing efforts in China.

In 2019, the NBA found itself embroiled in a geopolitical controversy after a team executive's tweet supporting the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, leading to a significant commercial fallout in the Chinese market. Similarly, in 2020, the German sportswear brand Adidas faced criticism from Chinese consumers for its perceived stance on the Xinjiang cotton issue, prompting a boycott and a decline in sales.

 

These examples illustrate the high-stakes nature of nationalistic marketing. While tapping into patriotic sentiments can provide short-term gains, it also carries the risk of long-term damage to reputation and lost consumer trust. Brands that misjudge the sensitivity of these issues may find themselves at the mercy of rapidly shifting public opinion, with little control over the narrative.

 

Furthermore, using patriotic sentiment for marketing runs the risk of unleashing uncontrollable public opinion. Online nationalist sentiment is often accompanied by intense emotional expression and verbal attacks. By stirring up national antagonism, it may trigger online violence and hate speech, leading to the spread of malicious emotions and the breakdown of social unity on social media.

 

If the "mocking Japan" incident is proven to be an organized marketing tactic, the relevant authorities should criticize or punish the company to prevent other enterprises from adopting similar tactics of inciting online nationalism for marketing.

Nationalistic marketing is a delicate and potentially risky endeavor.
Nationalistic marketing is a delicate and potentially risky endeavor.

At the same time, the controversy distracted attention of public was shifted from Japan's actions in discharging nuclear water, which detracted from the Chinese foreign ministry’s disciplined messaging.

 

The Xiangpiaopiao case highlights the role of media and government in shaping the discourse around nationalistic marketing. Official media outlets should take responsibility for guiding public opinion, ensuring that the focus remains on the core issues at hand rather than the controversies surrounding the marketing tactics. Regulatory bodies, too, should be prepared to intervene and impose appropriate sanctions on companies that cross the line into unethical or manipulative practices.

 

And for companies, the Xiangpiaopiao incident serves as a stark reminder that nationalistic marketing is a delicate and potentially risky endeavor. Brands that fail to navigate these treacherous waters with care and nuance risk jeopardizing their long-term success and reputation.

 

The path forward lies in a balanced approach that prioritizes authentic brand building, ethical marketing practices, and a deep understanding of the complex social and political landscapes in which they operate. Companies should carefully research the potential implications of their campaigns, consulting with experts in geopolitics and crisis management. Additionally, they should focus on building long-term brand loyalty and identity, rather than relying solely on exploiting nationalist sentiment for short-term commercial gain.

 

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