Cultural Revolution Chic, American Style

[UPDATE 12/3: Somehow I missed my friend Rob Schmitz’s excellent October 14 piece for NPR’s Marketplace regarding Gap’s entry into the China market. It touches on the question of localization, and whether or not Gap has made sufficient efforts to do so in China. It also touches on what happens when companies don’t localize in China. Highly recommended.]

American retailer Gap opened its first China-based store in Shanghai a few weeks ago. I didn’t go. Maybe I should have because I’m sure I would’ve immediately been struck by all of the bright red branding, yellow stars, and “1969” – a sorry year at the very heart of China’s decade-long tragedy, the Cultural Revolution – all over the store. Now, I’m quite aware that “1969” is a signature brand for Gap (which was founded in 1969), but I’m also aware that smart companies know when to alter their means of operation, product mix, and marketing when they enter a new county (see: McDonald’s and the lack of beef in India). And this strikes me as the work of a company that’s either a) clueless about China; or b) is sticking to its campaigns and brands (and damn the local sensitivities, they’ll learn to like them). Historically speaking, neither approach has been terribly successful.

Anyway, I’d given absolutely no thought to this matter until this morning, when Sky Canaves, a Hong Kong-based self-described truant journalist, runaway lawyer, and new academic (blog here, twitter here), tweeted news of the limited edition 1969 jean for China, released in honor of the retailer’s recent entry into the market. I had a meeting across the street from the shop later in the afternoon, so I figured I stop in and get a look afterward.When I did, I found red box after red box, emblazoned with yellow stars and 1969, awaiting me:

My immediate thought was: did anybody at Gap headquarters ever pause to wonder whether promoting their signature 1969 brand of denim in a manner that intimates there was something sexy about China in 1969 (forced labor, book burnings, and property seizures, families ruined, intellectuals tortured, etc etc etc) is tasteful? For me, it was all vaguely but uncomfortably reminiscent of NoKo jeans, those high-end North Korean denims sold by a couple of Swedish yahoos a year or so ago.

But I’m just an American, and I don’t know how to look at this stuff. So I called up a Chinese friend, a Beijing-born artist who had personal experience with the Cultural Revolution. And frankly, she didn’t find the branding anything to get worked up about: “They [Gap] probably didn’t know what they were doing.” But is it offensive? A PR fail? “Actually, I think it’s kind of funny. But they probably didn’t think about that, either. Stupid Americans think they can attract the Chinese with a yellow star and a red box and don’t even think about what the year means.” So, I guess its not like selling ‘1860’ coveralls in a confederate flag themed box, after all. In any case, I’ll be curious to read, though, what others think in the comment section.

Now, as for the special edition jeans themselves …

… this is what you need to know:

That’s right, in celebration of its entry into the China market, and its 1969 brand, Gap is charging RMB 1969 (roughly US$300) for a limited edition jean (edition of 3000). Will Chinese consumers buy $300 jeans marketed as Communist kitsch by an American company that they’ve never heard of before? I guess we’ll see. The American cashier I chatted with didn’t seem to have many doubts – “We chose to  have the same product mix here as in our Japanese stores.” Good luck with that.

End note: my friend Mary Bergstrom of the Bergstrom Group, a China trends consultancy tweeted, in regard to the special edition Gap jeans: “some of my staff checked out the gap store and ironically, they didn’t have the jeans in their (small Chinese) sizes”

[UPDATE 23/3: I just learned this morning that Gap held the press conference announcing its entry into the China market … in Japan. Speaking only for myself here: all signs point to a crash and burn strategy.]


  1. the campaign is absolutely offensive and it’s aboslutely indicative of a company that rushed into china knowing better than everyone else and is about to fall flat on its face. uniqlo knows how to sell expensive t-shirts to the chinese. do you see any with reference to the cultural revolution? what a bunch of complete idiots. they deserve to fail.

  2. The Jeans is only three or four times more expensive than a regular pair of jeans in China. And most people who are looking to buy are born after the 80’s, they would have no idea what 1969 means. But they really could used better marketing research.

  3. Sean I agree with your opinion mostly but I think it’s a very foolish message for Gap to send Chinese consumers that their jeans cost three times more. We all know China is a very price sensitive market. Of course we also know that Gap has been failing with its marketing in the US for a decade so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they are failing with their marketing right away in China.

  4. I am sorry to say, but In The Heat of The Sun is virtually impossible to obtain online, and I suspect the only way to watch it would be to be at a university that has a film copy and a theatre or to somehow catch a screening somewhere.

    The movie is a CR movie and it’s astonishingly rosy without being in poor taste; it is honest about the fact that it dictates subjective and personal experiences, which for certain people and certain classes were “pleasant”, and for urban youths, for Red Guards, if you discount the later factional fighting and the quasi-civil war, being used as the “revolutionary” vanguard for political factions in China was “fun”.

    As far as being in poor taste goes, I’m more flabbergasted at the price tag than anything else; if you are paying that much, you are really declasse if the entire point is to make a kitsch statement. I think this WILL be an advertising failure because the market segments that may spend 1969 RMB on this will not buy it because they are not educated on what the CR was, the market segments that know from experience what the CR was may secretly have fond memories of the compromise of adult authority figures during that period, but would not spend 1969 RMB on a pair of jeans, and the segments that would compromise a liberal intelligensia would have a similar reaction as you would.

  5. There are People’s Coummue and Mao theme restaurants/stores everywhere in China. The CR chic was first invented in China,not elsewhere. I don’t think the Chinese around me would find it offensive to eat at a Mao restaurant or drink with a mug in military green and printed with CR slogans.

  6. And the peak of CR is between 1966 and 1968. 1969 is a non-significant year in most Chinese’s memory. I don’t know if even it could be related to CR at all in the consciousness of most Chinese.

  7. Hi Leo –

    That’s the opinion that I’ve received from the vast majority of Chinese who have read this post. So it seems that I wandered off-base on that point. However, I do stand by the wider point – that Gap really didn’t think through its China strategy or product mix before entering the market.

    As for Cultural Revolution chic being invented in China – actually, I think it may have started in the West during the 1970s. But that’s a subject for another post. Thanks for the comment.

  8. When I was in Shanghai last spring, Paul French told me about meeting with people from The Gap when they were considering coming into China. He was extremely skeptical because the clothes were too casual–Banana Republic would be better–and way, way too big.

  9. Let’s put aside the general connotations of the year 1969 in China. Look at the general marketing/branding strategy here, which I think is very presumptuous.

    It’s easy to imagine Gap’s CEO talking to their head of international: “Hey, I heard there’s a big market in China and everyone there is rich now. I just read in the NYT that China is now the biggest market for [insert expensive Western product]. Clearly, Chinese people love Western products, especially jeans. Let’s get in there ASAP! We’ll get some jeans made in a Zengcheng sweatshop by people pulling in 1000 RMB/month, put the jeans in red boxes, and sell them for a 8,000% markup on their ex-factory price. Chinese people will love it!” That’s basically what this feels like to me…

    Why does Gap assume that anyone in China has ever heard of their brand or have any sense of the brand “heritage?” People buy expensive, limited edition products commemorating a brand’s history
    because they feel some strong connection to the brand. It’s almost impossible to imagine there are Chinese consumers with an affinity for Gap. The European luxury brands that can sell ridiculously expensive goods in the Chinese market can do that because they have spent tons of money educating consumers on their brand heritage, quality, experience, etc and have created desire amongst a certain set of consumers. Many of those companies are very deferential to Chinese cultural characteristics and history. Gap has done none of those things and in my mind, comes off as another of a gazillion Western brands jumping into the Chinese market and clamoring for consumer attention.

  10. All this grousing about “they’re going to fall flat on their faces” hasn’t really borne out though. I used to be a big Gap customer back in the early 90s, but as I got in to working – my tastes and requirements ran more towards their banana republic brand – and also I felt their their own designs had stagnated. So when the store opened on Huaihai, I didn’t really feel the need to rush over and see it.

    But one afternoon, I wandered over after spending some time at the Apple Store – and was pleasantly surprised by the designs and the pricing (the limited edition jeans notwithstanding, I bought two pairs of jeans for a total of 500 RMB – a pretty reasonable price). And the store was PACKED. Lots of commerce happening at their Huaihai location – additionally their marketing has brought in a lot of youth-influencers and is completely integrating their international brand and local – using people like Wang Momo, Zhou Xun and DJ Wordy (from Beijing) along with international celebs. So to dismiss them out of hand for not localizing is . . .well, incorrect.

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