Feel sorry for Lancome

Editorial | 8 Jun 2016

French cosmetics brand Lancome severed its relationship with Denise Ho Wan-see - a pro-democracy advocate - in less than 24 hours, first denying she was its brand ambassador, then cancelling a private concert featuring the Cantopop singer.

Why the fuss? It's all due to criticism by mainland netizens and state media Global Times.

It's ugly. If Lancome can be frightened so easily, it shouldn't have picked any controversial figure for promotional purposes in the beginning. Ho surely isn't for the faint of heart.

But since she was chosen, the company should stand by its choice rather than withdrawing in the face of criticism.

Lancome obviously wants to please the mainlanders who are undoubtedly of growing importance to its French parent, L'Oreal.

But it's increasingly probable the decision will backfire to damage Lancome - and that is already evident - and also other top brands owned by the group, because the row is quickly evolving into a moral rather than a purely commercial issue.

The decision to dump Ho may be based on commercially sound considerations that can best be explained by the numbers: in 2015, L'Oreal reported 25.3 billion euros (HK$223.2 billion) in sales, of which nearly 23 percent was generated in the Asia-Pacific region. China was a major contributor.

According to L'Oreal's official website, the group controls a total of 40 brands under five categories. Lancome Paris is just one of the 18 brands in the Luxe category. Others include Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, Biotherm, and Ralph Lauren.

Because of the continuous drop in mainland visitors to Hong Kong, the SAR has ceased to be an important market for the group. Worse still, it's referred to as a difficult one for the group in its 2015 annual report.

For the French cosmetics giant, the choice couldn't be more straightforward: one is a growing market contributing significantly to the group's revenues, while the other is small and contracting.

As matters stand, Lancome - to be exact, L'Oreal - has provided the answer.

The question is: did the group's top executives ever foresee the moral risk that is intensifying quickly right now?

While customers in both the SAR and mainland are angry, a global petition, started in France demanding Lancome reverse its Ho decision, is also gaining traction after the spats between Hongkongers and mainlanders were reported by the media in France, Britain and the United States.

An incompetent crisis management is responsible for the public relations disaster. If the fire can't be put out quickly, it's bound to spread to other brands.

As the Global Times struck at Lancome in its damning commentary, it also mentioned that the US maker of Listerine mouthwash commissioned Ho to be the brand's ambassador to "bring out the bold" - its global corporate theme this year.

Unlike Lancome, Listerine isn't knuckling under to criticism.

Listerine understands the drill: once a celebrity is selected, it'd better stand by the choice if there is nothing morally unacceptable uncovered later.

In reality, there is no decision that pleases everybody. But in Lancome's case, its actions have left a bad taste in many mouths.

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