The BMW Ice Cream Incident: A Lesson in Crisis and Culture Management in China

On April 18, 2023, BMW’s Mini unit faced a public relations crisis at the Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition after being accused of discrimination in the distribution of free ice cream. Videos circulated on social media showed two Chinese workers at the Mini booth telling ethnic Chinese attendees that the ice cream had run out before handing it to a Western man moments later. The incident sparked outrage and calls for a boycott of the carmaker on the Chinese internet.

In response, Mini China issued an apology on Weibo, stating that the promotion aimed to provide a “moment of sweetness” to attendees. They admitted to internal management issues and dereliction of duty by their staff, pledging to improve training. However, the public’s anger persisted, prompting Mini China to issue a second apology. In this statement, the company explained that the Westerners receiving ice cream were staff members, and that a small number of ice cream tubs were reserved for employees.

Despite these attempts to rectify the situation, the controversy continued to dominate discussions on social media. The incident highlights the importance of effective crisis management and understanding cultural sensitivities for foreign brands in China.

As China’s consumer base grows richer and more nationalistic, companies like BMW have faced increasing scrutiny. Brands have been called out for various reasons, from not listing Taiwan as part of China on their websites to criticizing alleged forced labor in Xinjiang. These incidents often result in companies having to issue apologies and reassess their cultural understanding.

The BMW ice cream incident serves as a reminder for foreign brands in China to carefully manage their image, public relations, and cultural awareness. Effective crisis management requires swift action, a genuine apology, and a demonstration of steps taken to rectify the situation. In addition, companies must invest in understanding the cultural nuances of the markets they operate in to avoid inadvertently offending local consumers.

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