Uproar against firms such as Pocari Sweat, Tempo, Yoshinoya and Pizza Hut shows brands tread dangerous ground by taking sides on Hong Kong extradition protests, say marketing experts

Denise Tsang

The marketing storm sparked by the extradition bill conflict in Hong Kong has raised questions over whether companies should take a political stance, especially within such a charged climate.

Consumers’ political views presented brands and firms with a dilemma, putting them between a rock and a hard place as tensions mounted over the much-hated bill, despite its suspension on June 15.

Any stance they took risked upsetting shoppers and having consequences on their image and bottom line.

The situation was particularly dire when culture, social and political values contrasted sharply between Hong Kong and mainland China, according to advertising experts.

Hong Kong companies could lose revenue from shoppers visiting from mainland China if they nail their colours to the mast on a sensitive political issue. Photo: Sam Tsang

Cases in point involved global brands such as Tempo tissue papers, Yoshinoya and Pizza Hut restaurants and sports drinks Pocari Sweat, which were dragged into a political row over their advertising and marketing strategies in the city. 

“Companies cannot avoid staying away from politics,” said Rudi Leung Chi-sing, founder of the advertising agency Hungry Digital, who has been in the industry for 27 years.

“Whether a company should take any political affiliation is debatable. Whether or whatever a company says, it still has a chance to offend somebody.”

Yoshinoya’s image went on a roller-coaster ride last week when the restaurant’s post on Facebook in Hong Kong made fun of the police for tearing down anti-bill messages in Tai Po on a “Lennon Wall”, where protesters post notes and drawings in support of a particular cause.

The social media post sarcastically asked people to stop calling a traditional Japanese food Chikuwa, which is available in the Yoshinoya outlets, as Si Zi Gau, and literally means “lion dog”. The name also sounds similar to “a dog that tore paper” in Cantonese.

Hong Kong’s online community applauded the post initially but turned against the company after the restaurant chain’s pro-government boss pulled it on Thursday.

The campaign against Yoshinoya includes pinning up posters expressing anger at the Japanese fast food chain. Photo: Felix Wong

Pro-establishment Marvin Hung Ming-kei, the CEO of Hong Kong-listed Hop Hing Group that runs Yoshinoya restaurants across the border, told mainland media he was outraged at the post, which he was not informed of in advance.

Companies like Yoshinoya were quick to steer clear of airing political views to avoid offending a bigger market like China’s 1.2 billion-strong consumer base.

The mainland office of Pocari, for example, distanced itself from its Hong Kong branch’s leaked recent decision to pull adverts from free-to-air broadcaster Television Broadcasts (TVB), which city protesters accused of running biased coverage of the bill.

The drinks firm’s mainland office declared it respects the one country, two systems policy and worked independently from the Hong Kong’s office after mainland internet users called for a boycott of the product and criticised the brand for supporting violence.

German brand Tempo, which said on Saturday its advertising campaign with TVB ended in June, said it would continue to advertise in the city’s electronic media, including with the broadcaster. It added it supported the one country, two systems principle.

Pocari Sweat pulled adverts from TVB following complaints about the broadcaster’s protest coverage, triggering a backlash on the mainland. Photo: Shutterstock

“Advertising is based on commercial decisions, but now advertisers cannot avoid the elephant in the room – politics,” said Fox Luk Chi-kong, a brand strategy adviser of a Hong Kong digital marketing agency.

“There are significant discrepancies over the culture and political atmosphere between Hong Kong and the mainland. Some strategies work here may offend people on the other side of the border.”

The actions against TVB and other non-cooperative campaigns launched by mostly young protesters were aimed at forcing Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to completely retract the bill even after she apologised twice for the way the proposals were handled and called it “dead”.

Pocari Sweat among advertisers ditching Hong Kong’s TVB over claims of biased coverage

They have been severely critical of the bill, which would allow Hong Kong to send back offenders to jurisdictions it does not have any extradition deals with, such as the mainland, where critics said there are no guarantees of a fair trial.

They also called on Lam to withdraw the riot reference to the June 12 protest, among other demands.

Leung, of Hungry Digital, said there were some exceptions where a brand’s controversial views did not backfire.

Citing the world’s largest sports brand Nike as an example, he said its decision to feature the former NFL star and activist Colin Kaepernick in the brand’s advertising campaign for its 30th anniversary last September ended up being a success.

TVB protest row has firms distancing themselves from Hong Kong franchises

Kaepernick is a divisive figure in the United States for his silent kneeling protests against police brutality and racial inequality.

“Some brands like Nike chose to have a stance on sensitive issues, the outcome is attracting lots of attention, controversies and it is still doing well today,” he said.

Associate professor Billy Mak Sui-choi, of Baptist University’s department of finance and decision sciences, said companies should not take sides because they were accountable to shareholders and operated on a commercial basis.

“The management should be sensitive to politics and put in place protocol for staff not to bring politics into the office,” he said.

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