MISTRANSLATION, CONFUCIANISM

AND LOUIS VUITTON

Meet Harry Kinnear, one of the Graduate Trainees who joined Space Doctors earlier this year. As part of their candidacy, we always ask the graduates to analyse a brand of their choice and look into emergent cultural cues the brand is tapping into and Harry has chosen the Chinese manifestation of Louis Vuitton.

* These pieces have been written independently, are not meant to be an objective commercial critique, and they do not necessarily represent the views of Space Doctors Ltd *

Whilst teaching in a school in Suzhou, China, last year, I decided to spark some creativity in my students by approaching advertising and brands as a topic of discussion. At the beginning of the lesson I displayed some iconic brands to the Chinese youths and was fascinated by the responses to what they saw. The golden arches of Macdonalds, the smiling face of the Colonel and the glowing Apple all provoked shouts of recognition and cheers of affability. They all elicited an emotive response in all the students; instantly recognisable and obviously aspirational to this group.

However, when I displayed brands that can be defined as ‘luxury’; such as Louis Vuitton or Burberry, the responses were markedly different. Whilst it was also true that there was brand recognition, in as much as the brands were easily identifiable by the students, the emotional responses were lackluster, if even present. What was the difference between these groups of brands? The answer must surely lie within the way that the brands have introduced themselves into a China that continues to rapidly develop, both socially and economically.

It is a given that cultural differences are potential barriers to brand acceptance and certainly in this case, ambiguity about what the luxury brands represent to Chinese consumers has occurred. Whilst I understand that six hundred poor Chinese students aged from eleven to fifteen perhaps does not represent an appropriate sample group to learn about brand affinity amongst the emergent wealthy middle class in China, their responses in my class room tell a tale. To examine the effects of translation and mistranslation of luxury brands into China, let’s take Louis Vuitton as a case study.

It is a widely established that the luxury market in China is expanding. Having stood in the enormous Louis Vuitton in Shanghai, I can personally testify to the liveliness of sales (though the closing down of four Louis Vuitton stores in the past few months suggests a bumpy road is being experienced). However, if we look at the marketing employed, it is noticeably ‘un’-Chinese. The models are invariably Western (often Western actors, despite Hollywood films’ releases being capped by Beijing) and they reference the cultural cues of the affluent West, which one can only assume was identified as emerging in the new class of wealthy Chinese.

The imagery evoked in these Western style marketing posters include sexuality, exclusivity, femininity (though a Western one) and a sort of exotic decadence. I would argue that these cultural cues have proved popular with the emergent rich Chinese consumers because of their intrinsic Westernness; an entirely shallow display of wealth and power. However, this inherent Westernness is also the barrier to true cultural connection between consumers and the brand.

If you consider the importance of China’s recent history and, more importantly, the profound importance of Confucian principles that inform so much of Chinese life, from the very poor, to the extremely wealthy; it is clear that in many ways, Louis Vuitton, in its current form, is incompatible with Chinese culture. Luxury goods being confiscated by the government in living memory, recent crack downs on corruption and the idea that the ostentation associated with brands such as Louis Vuitton is incompatible with the ‘simple life’ principles of Confucianism are barriers that need to be overcome in order to future proof the brand.

Even the way that Louis Vuitton has literally translated itself into Chinese culture seems irreconcilable with Confucianism. CocaCola’s Chinese name is 可口可乐 (kekoukele), or literally: ‘can mouth can happy’. This simple statement plays upon Chinese obsession with food, partially a product of the culture of famine that forms a significant part of Chinese culture. It also ties in with the simplicity of Confucian principles. Conversely, Louis Vuitton has been translated into 路易威登 (luyiweidong) or literally: ‘road easy power ascend’.

The easy road to ascend power seems so obviously antithetical to Confucianism; I wonder whether Louis Vuitton has even considered the semantics of its brand in China at all.