Cosmetics giant L’Oreal is facing a barrage of criticism in Hong Kong, after surrendering to condemnation from the Chinese media. What began as an error in branding judgement is turning into a political melee for the French company.
Lancôme, one of L’Oreal’s subsidiary brands, originally engaged Denise Ho Wan-sze to perform at a small-scale, promotional concert on June 19. However, the Chinese state news outlet Global Times picked up on the story and criticized Lancôme for engaging Ho, who is known for her support of the Umbrella Movement, the 2014 protests for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Ho also publicly met the Dalai Lama earlier this year. Lancôme abruptly cancelled the concert for “possible safety reasons” the day after the editorial piece was released.
In the opinion piece, the Global Times said companies that wish to operate in China should not play politics. “If they wish to participate in the Chinese market and profit from it, they must not do anything that threatens the interests of China; this applies to both inside and outside of the country’s borders. This idea is the ‘status quo’,” Global Times said.
Critics have slammed L’Oreal for caving into China and showing a lack of ethics and morals. Two petitions have been circulating, including one in French launched on Change.org. It calls for the boycott of all brands under the parent company.
“We cannot accept Lancôme as an ‘ambassador’ of France – a country of human rights – to Hong Kong, while it sacrifices freedom of thought and freedom of expression in its trade policy. We cannot accept that French companies bend to the dictates of the Chinese Communist Party,” the petition said.
On Wednesday at least four brands under L’Oreal had closed their stores at a popular Hong Kong mall before a scheduled protest against the cancellation of the concert. Protesters unfurled a banner with Ho’s image that also read “We are all Denise Ho – say no to mainland tyranny.” Other banners read, “No kowtow to Beijing” and “Protecting Hong Kong’s core values,” according to Hong Kong Free Press.
Hong Kong Lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching said L’Oreal’s behavior was despicable and asked the question, “Whatever happened to the French qualities… liberty, equality, fraternity – are they telling us these days, today, that money talks? Profits come first?”
Ho has also spoken out about the cancellation. Taking to Facebook, she said, “Lancôme is an international brand, and when an international brand has to kneel before this type of suppression, we cannot but face the problem seriously.” She added, “In addition to the pursuit of profits, corporations also have moral responsibilities.”
Ho said the decision to cancel the concert came from the company’s head office and that she demanded an explanation from the head office in France.
The problem L’Oreal currently faces is one that will challenge many international brands who have entered the Chinese market. As China makes an outward push of its own ideology, brands will be increasingly under pressure to toe the line. This case highlights the fine line that Western companies must negotiate as they try to profit from the burgeoning Chinese market while also dealing with corporate social responsibility. It also once again demonstrates the lengths to which the current Chinese administration will go to silence ideological dissenters.
L’Oreal owns a number of brands including Lanôome, Kiehls, and The Body Shop, some of which have built their brands on strong ethics and images of strong, independent women.