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Engage your Chinese Consumers Better

Ford in China: a Horse, an Ox or an Ass?

Just in case you missed it, this month, February, heralds the coming of the Chinese or Lunar New Year. Also known as Spring Festival in China and TET in Vietnam. This year, 2021 it falls on February 12th. The lead up, which starts as early as October for some brands, is possibly the busiest and most important time of the year as they prepare and finalise the coming year’s marketing plans.

For companies like our sisters, Bicyu and Uengager it is also a very busy time. Think of Christmas on speed, multiplied a few thousand times and you’re in the right paddock.

You may also possibly know that each year is astrologically divided up into one of 12 characters, each represented by an animal. Much the same way we have Aires, Libra, Virgo, Scorpio etc. The coming 2021 year happens to be the year of the OX. Remember that, it’s relevant to this piece.

Spring Festival evokes a lot of memories and is heavy on tradition, many people decorate their homes with colourful posters with various proverbs, words of inspiration or wisdom. Needless to say, this is not lost on brands and marketers who also jump on the band wagon.
Tacky your’re thinking? You’e not far wrong in some cases.
However, there does seem to be some innate, unwritten guidelines and most Chinese brands and marketers know instinctively where the line is and rarely, if ever, cross it.

Sadly the same can not always be said for some western brands

Over the years we have commented many times about the dangers for foreign brands in trying to capitalise on Chinese culture in their marketing or advertising. At best it can come across as patronising -it usually does- at worst in is interpreted as insulting. In either case the reaction is never what the brand hoped for. Get it even slightly wrong and the backlash can be extremely severe. And no, any publicity is not good publicity. Not in today’s age of social Media and especially in China with WeChat and Weibo. Just ask Dolce and Gabbana about that one. (Link may not open in China]

It might be tempting, and maybe your heart is in the right place, although frankly, we doubt, it, but it is invariably one of those: “it seemed a good idea at the time” disasters in the making.
The chances are very high that instead of winning the hearts and minds of your Chinese consumers, you will end up alienating them and doing long term damage to your brand.
Or at the very least becoming the target of ridicule and brunt of bad jokes and memes on Chinese social media.

Ford mustang 2020 weibo

Ford Motor Company have recently found this out when, in a not so subtle nod to the importance of the Chinese EV market, announced that its first pure electric SUV – a Mustang – would be manufactured in China, with “2021 – China: Year of the Horse” complete with horse related images and ideas.

If you are now wondering why this was such a bad idea, maybe you need to read this article again from the top paying close attention to paragraph two! However, we are at best a little bit confused as an element of doubt has crept into our thinking. From our experience of working along side China’s automobile makers, both local and domestic, especially Ford’s partner in this venture, VW their marketing teams are very experienced and savvy Chinese professionals. It is, in our mind, inconceivable that they could have made such a silly error. So is there more than meets the eye?

There are a number of possibilities open:

  • Ford are word playing with the mustang / horse name and any connection to Chinese New Year is purely coincidental.
  • Chinese readers have jumped to the wrong conclusion unaware of the connection and the point Ford is trying to make. However, the vehicle translates into Chinese as Wild Horse, so it is rather unlikely that Chinese would not make the connection. Plus the Chinese text in the advert also quite clearly states: “China 2021 . Horse Year.”
  • Ford China’s marketing team have made an innocent, accidental error and jumped ahead 6 years to year of the horse. Yet again, as we point out above we believe their team would be very, very aware of what year this is.
  • Ford have attempted to create traffic and awareness by courting controversy.

To us it looks suspiciously like the final option. Ford Chinese team have attempted to generate attention by controversy. And it has backfired badly. If so, then in our view, it is a rather risky strategy. Controversy is fine, but not when involves or even skirts or borders on culture.

Of course, a a day later, Ford publicly apologised, seeming to suggest it did not make it’s original ad clear and thus, confusion followed;

Mustang Mach-E’s original copywriting was not expressed clearly, which caused misunderstanding and confusion

Ford on Sina Webo

Frankly we tend to go along with those who were cynical and who didn’t buy the explanation. However we feel that to claim “the advertisement is “poor taste marketing” and didn’t respect Chinese culture” is a little too far. Poor judgement maybe. However, we don’t believe any actual disrespect of Chinese culture was intended. Maybe some readers are a little too sensitive, a little too “precious” or work for a competitor auto company?

If you want more background, this story from Caixn offers a deeper look and reaction from the local Chinese social media.

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Whatever your question re Chinese Business, Marketing Tech or Social Media, she will know the answer, or know someone who does! A brief intro below;

Introducing Everlyne YU


In 2003 Everlyne Yu co-founded WPBeijing Marketing Studio with Englishman Peter Bic, now known as Bic Brands.

She began Uengager, as a SaaS MarTech company focused on customer engagement in 2017.

Hello, Nihao, I’m Everlyne

I love to talk about and help people understand the amazing ways MarTech and SaaS can work to strengthen your business engagement with Chinese consumers.
I know you have questions or want to talk about your brand or business in China so please, drop me a line opposite. If you prefer live chat, call and talk to me live, in person direct.


Everlyne is also a key note speaker, lecturer and KOL on MarTech in China. She is CEO of Uengager, business development officer for Bicyu.

Everlyne hs been privileged to work with a variety of international organisations, from VW, Cushman Wakefield, Sodexo, Bristol Myers Squibb to local Chinese firms such as Midea, and OK Order.

If you’re looking for guidance, tips, advice on any aspect of starting or growing a business in China or training, coaching your existing China marketing team for excellence, be sure to check out Uengager. Home page and base for Everlyne Yu. Read her short bio – opposite left – or contact her direct – below – for a free, heart to heart chat.

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A selection of Bicyu clients since 2003


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