On 25th April 2018, a Chinese customer who was queuing outside the Balenciaga concession in the famous Parisian retailer Le Printemps complained about people jumping the queue. Her son, who came to her defence, was allegedly violently struck to the ground by security guards. Shortly after, Chinese witnesses to the incident were asked to leave by an employee.
Official Chinese media broadcast news of this altercation, picking the story up from WeChat (the popular Chinese instant messaging app) where a witness had posted it. Rapidly, a screenshot of the original WeChat message was circulated on the internet, as well as pictures and a video showing the incident (although the Agence France-Presse could not verify the authenticity of the material).
With the buzz originated from WeChat and Weibo (another Chinese social media platform), the news spread on Twitter and then onto French TV broadcasts. In response, many Chinese users who commented on the story accused Balenciaga of racial discrimination against Asian people.
By 27th April the hashtag #BoycottBalenciagaDiscriminatesAgainstChinese was used over 23 million times on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. A user wrote: “You can say goodbye to the Chinese market” with another stating: “We won’t accept any apology on this issue”.
However, the guards who struck the customer on the ground were not employed by Kiering, the parent company of Balenciaga, but by a security company hired by the shopping centre, which caused confusion for some social media users. Le Printemps tried to take responsibility for the furore, apologising on Instagram, as the store does not have any Weibo or WeChat account but their apology failed to reach the right audience.
On the other hand, Balenciaga only use their social media platforms for commercial purposes, such as announcing new season fashion collections or new store openings around the world. Their traditional communication strategy usually excludes direct dialogue with their customers. However, following the incident the firm became concerned about the negative impact of not dealing with the social media fallout on their sales.
Over the past decade, tourists from Asia have spent millions of euros on luxury goods when they traveled to Europe on holiday. Balenciaga, and other brands owed by Kiering such as Gucci or Yves Saint Laurent, are compulsory stops, where tourists can frequently be seen queuing outside the brands’ flagship stores. Earlier this year, Kiering cited a strong recovery in luxury spending by Chinese consumers as one of the main reasons for the boom in their sales.
Balenciaga finally issued an apology, nearly 48 hours after the incident on its WeChat account saying: “The Balenciaga house regrets the incident that occurred yesterday morning in a Paris department store while customers were waiting to enter our shop. Security personnel acted immediately to restore calm. Balenciaga sincerely apologises to customers and reaffirms its strong commitment to respect all its customers”.
The takeaway from the Balenciaga affair? Luxury brands who have traditionally avoided direct contact with their customers may need to pay more attention to how they handle communications around a crisis, especially now their global consumers are using a range of social media platforms. A more timely and nuanced approach might have avoided this serious fashion faux pas.