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Is China Ready for LGBTQI Marketing?

BEIJING, China — Last month, Taiwan became the first place in Asia to approve same sex marriage. The excitement spilled over into mainland China, where gay marriage is not permitted, with the trending topic #TaiwanOkaysGayMarriage# receiving 590 million views on Weibo.

Now, with Pride Month underway, fashion brands are pushing local limits by bringing their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning and intersex (LGBTQI) campaigns to China.

Coach, Diesel, Nike, and Old Navy are all sponsoring Shanghai Pride, which runs from June 8-16, while Adidas, UGG, Levi’s and Esprit are among the brands launching capsule collections they hope will resonate with the Chinese LGBTQI community and their supporters. Promoting Pride is consistent with a broader message shared by many fashion brands: that consumers can express their identities through their clothes.

As always in China, there’s a large and lucrative potential market. According to China Daily, the LGBTQI community in China numbers over 70 million and the demographic is worth an estimated $300 billion across industries. That number doesn’t include hundreds of millions more Chinese who might choose to express their solidarity with the community through their purchases.

Adidas’ 2019 Pride collection

But using fashion as a platform to champion social causes hasn’t caught on here in the same way that it has elsewhere. Some wonder whether consumers are ready to open their wallets to support a community that continues to face significant discrimination both politically and socially.

Promoting a pro-LGBTQI message is complicated in China. Homosexuality was illegal in the mainland until 1997, and it was still classified as a mental health disorder until 2001. LGBTQI themes continue to be censored in popular culture and on social media. References to Freddie Mercury’s sexuality and battle with AIDS were removed from Chinese screenings of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), for example, and the topic #Les#, a discussion group for lesbians that has almost 700 million reads, was removed from Weibo in April.

Despite ongoing censorship of such content, a number of brands have decided to go ahead with their global Pride campaigns in China this year. Esprit’s “Every Stripe” collection, which integrates the Pride flag in designs by artists Craig Redman and Karl Maier, launches in China somewhat belatedly on July 4.

“Originally we didn’t decide to carry the collection [because] for many countries in Asia, gay marriage is illegal,” says Jinnie Wei, Esprit’s Marketing and Communications Senior Manager, Asia. Wei says consumer insight and social listening helped give the brand the confidence to go ahead with their Pride campaign in China in 2019.

“From some research we’re doing, Chinese people are ready to receive more emotional and high level [messages], not just thinking about fashion and how they look,” Wei says. “Chinese people now care much more about community and a sense of belonging than in previous years.”

With regards to the LGBTQI community specifically, she says, “In the past two years, Chinese people have become very open-minded.”

“May 17 was the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, and the buzz was really high on Weibo. Tons of Chinese people are speaking up for LGBT[QI] people, so it really is the right moment for brands like us,” she says.

Coach’s Shanghai Pride Campaign | Source: Courtesy

Raymond Phang, co-founder of Shanghai Pride, which this year turns 11, agrees that something has changed for global brands. He says that over the past three years Shanghai Pride asked Old Navy for T-shirts — to give their volunteers and the participants in their Pride week bike ride — without success. “Then last year they were like, yep! Let’s do it. They needed more time,” he says.

Coach and Diesel reached out to Shanghai Pride this year to explore ways to partner with them, instead of Shanghai Pride going to them.

“But we want brands to be more real than just giving us a product,” says Phang. “UGG came out with these rainbow, fluffy shoes. But we said, hey, we’re not going to have an event where we’re going to wear them out.”

He prefers it when, for example, Nike provides coaches and pacers to help with their run, or Coach agrees to shoot a glamorous visual campaign to promote not just their products but also the Shanghai Pride festival.

“When you use your company resources, or PR agencies or event partners, then they’ll know that Nike, for instance, supports LGBT[QI people and rights]. They are going to engage more people by organising an event,” Phang says.

We want brands to be more real than just giving us a product.

While a growing number of global fashion brands are willing to bring their Pride campaigns to China, and some of them are becoming more sophisticated in their engagement with the local LGBTQI community, it’s still a challenge to find people willing to market and wear their Pride collections because so few LGBTQI people in China are publicly out.

A 2016 study commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme and led by Professor Wu Lijuan of the Peking University Sociology Department found that only 15 percent of China’s LGBTQI community were out to their families and only five percent were out publicly. By contrast, in the UK for example, 65 percent of respondents to the 2019 National LGBTQI Survey were out to all or most family members.

“There aren’t many celebrities I know of who’d get involved in these types of campaigns because they know it’s a sensitive topic,” says Lauren Hallanan, author of “Digital China: Working with Bloggers, Influencers and KOLs.

“While there are a lot of influencers who are gay, especially in the beauty industry, I don’t know many of them who have openly come out to their fans,” she says. “I don’t think a lot of their audiences are coming to them to learn about what it’s like to be a gay man in China.”

Only 15 percent of China’s LGBTQI community were out to their families and only five percent were out publicly.

While Chinese celebrities and influencers might present as LGBTQI in public, they rarely say so explicitly, Phang notes. The situation is the same for the many LGBTQI members that make up China’s fashion industry in cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

“[Dancer and television celebrity] Jin Xing is openly trans but she doesn’t talk about it in media or in her work on TV,” he says. She will talk about her identity at events such as The Economist’s recent Pride and Prejudice Forum in Hong Kong, “just not in the mainland,” he says.

The lack of public role models is a real challenge for the LGBTQI community in China, Phang says. “People need role models. When you have someone who is up higher to speak up for you, you have more courage to someday be that someone. You feel better,” he says.

The fact that Chinese celebrities, influencers and consumers are all more hesitant to publicly identify as LGBTQI necessitates a more subtle and strategic approach for brands promoting their Pride campaigns in China.

“Many people don’t want to be seen in public as gay, so we have a strategy to approach different levels of KOLs,” Esprit’s Wei says. “Some of them don’t see being seen as gay as a problem, but for instance when I’m seeding products to celebrities, the angle is not to say you are gay but to say you’re supporting love and equality and unity.”

Adidas seems to be taking a similar approach of seeding products, rather than asking celebrities to stand up for the LGBTQI community more directly. Patrick Ng, the APAC vice president of Adidas Originals says there are no particular Chinese celebrities promoting their Love Unite series, “but keep an eye out and spot them in the collection”.

Beauty influencer Dong Zichu (better known as his online persona Benny Bitch) has drawn over 3 million Weibo followers and 37,000 Youtube subscribers with his beauty and makeup videos. According to Dong, many people dare not speak about LGBTQI issues in China, and they shouldn’t feel pressured to do so.

Beauty influencer Benny Dong | Source: Courtesy

“I am willing to speak for this group, I’ve done charity [for the LGBTQI community], and I am willing to speak for the AIDS community, but this is my personal choice,” he says. “Many people don’t want to, and that’s their personal choice.”

“Of course we hope that [celebrities] can be advocates, but only when they feel comfortable,” Phang says. “With travel or relationship advice KOLs, they might just take a picture [wearing] a shoe or a bag with a little rainbow. They might treat it as something they saw, or experienced from a third person view, rather than ‘I am’ or ‘I support’.”

For both brands and influencers, it’s reasonable to acknowledge a level of risk in promoting support for the LGBTQI community, given the state’s hostility towards its culture and rights.

“What is allowed to talk about or not allowed to talk about in China, there’s never really a clear rule,” says Shaway Yeh, founder of brand agency yehyehyeh and Group Style Editorial Director at Modern Media. “Maybe now it’s okay, but next year it’s not okay.”

What is allowed to talk about or not allowed to talk about in China, there’s never really a clear rule.

China continues to send extremely mixed messages. While Chinese state newspaper the People’s Daily praised Taiwan’s marriage equality ruling as a win for “local lawmakers” in a tweet that angered Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, An Fengshan, spokesman for the People’s Republic’s policy-making Taiwan Affairs Office, was quick to reaffirm mainland China’s stance on gay marriage. “The mainland has a marriage system of one man, one woman,” he said.

That leaves both global and domestic fashion brands with a tough decision to make.

“Does the brand really, really stand behind the cause, or is it just one of the causes it stands for? If it’s the latter, you can use another cause that has more resonance in China.” Yeh says. “If it’s the only cause they stand for, they can find a milder message. ‘Inclusive’ sounds much milder than ‘LGBT[QI] community’, and it’s not the same thing, but it touches on similar issues.”

That broader message of inclusiveness is one that’s being shared by a number of brands, including Adidas, here. Ng says their Love Unite series “is not only for the LGBT[QI] community, but rather Originals celebrating Pride with everybody.”

But whether or not that’s enough to excite consumers is another of the many uncertainties facing both brands and the LGBTQI community in China.

Additional reporting by Nino Tang.

时尚与美容
FASHION & BEAUTY

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科技与创新
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消费与零售
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Source: Shutterstock

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