This week, as Hong Kong’s protests enter their 18th week, the NBA was the most recent organisation to give a “grovelling apology” following a more intentional Hong Kong-related incident – Friday’s tweet from Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Initially the NBA and the Rockets was quick to distance itself from Morey; there was even talk of firing him, although this was refuted by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver who supported his ability to exercise freedom of expression.
Whilst sport is said to transcend politics, politics touches everything in China, and China is very, very important to the league. 500 million Chinese watched at least one NBA game last season, and an estimated 300 million play basketball in the country. In July, Tencent and the NBA announced a five-year extension of their partnership through the 2024-25 season for a reported $1.5 billion, contributing to the NBA’s estimated $4 billion business in China.
Before Friday, the Houston Rockets were second-most popular NBA team in China, largely due to China’s 8-time NBA All-Star starter Yao Ming who played for the Rockets between 2002 and 2011. Since the tweet, Yao Ming, now president of the Chinese Basketball Association, suspended its relationship with his old team. Chinese brands SPD bank and Li Ning have pulled their sponsorship from the Rockets and Alibaba and JD have removed all Rockets merchandise from their platforms. CCTV and Tencent have now both said they will “immediately suspend” plans to broadcast a pair of NBA pre-season exhibition games being staged in China. Luckin Coffee, Vivo smartphones and sportswear brand Anta have also pulled sponsorship with the NBA as a whole.
Of course, there has been the inevitable berating of the Rockets on Chinese social media. Interestingly though, online discussions on Western platforms have seen much more unfavourable posts about China than usual. Many have mocked brands who “sell out to Chinese values and support a totalitarian government in the name of money and the endless quest for growth.” NBA fans suggested filling stadiums wearing t-shirts in support of HK, ‘Free HK’ chants and bringing signs to games, much like the French football fans in Lyon who formed a massive Tibetan flag in protest of the game being rescheduled early so it could be broadcast live in China. It appears that NBA has listened to its home country fans, releasing a new statement that the NBA is not bowing to China, instead reinforcing that “values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA – and will continue to do so.”
Expect to see more of this. Just as we see Chinese consumers pushing back on brands that are insensitive or ignorant about Chinese culture, we may see more of this type of kickback from consumers against brands whose behaviour in China doesn’t align with their value sets. With consumers in most Western countries holding increasingly unfavourable views of China, consumers in the west are likely to scrutinise more over behaviour in China.
Brands who make geopolitical gaffes will increasingly have to wrestle with cultural sensitivities in China while ensuring consumers in their home markets don’t see them as sell-outs. We’ve seen parallels of this with cosmetics brands in 2017 when Nars joined brands such as Jurlique, L’Occitane, Yves Rocher and Caudalie who were slammed by consumers in their home markets for renouncing their stance on no animal testing to sell in China’s bricks & mortar stores. NBA is in an enviable position that they are greatest basketball league globally, by a long way. Unlike cosmetics, fashion, food, hotels and airlines, there are no real substitutes for basketball-obsessed Chinese fans. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.
As sentiment towards China becomes more polarised in many countries, organisations don’t need to just factor Chinese cultural sensitivities into their branding, but increasingly the multi-dimensional considerations of other markets too. There never is a dull day in the land of branding. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.