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Learning from Langham Hotels Social Media Experience

It’s unfortunate that Langham Hotels’ Big Deal social media marketing campaign was supposed to generate buzz and positive spin but yielded catastrophic results. Initial reaction was good, as claimed by organizers, but turned sour and generated uproar among certain groups in Hong Kong, claiming the campaign was executed to promote the hotel at the expense of Hong Kong’s local people and culture. Eventually, the whole campaign had to be phased out.

social-network-map

The whole ruckus started when Langham Hotels posted a series of videos highlighting the value of staying at Langham Hotels. But the downside is that the videos also portrayed the need to be within the hotel premises so guests can avoid the locals who have various ways to attract newbies in the city. One was trying to sell fake watches, another was bringing chicken feet in a bowl of congee. That’s a given in Mong Kok, home to many stalls peddling bootleg products and dai pai dongs. It just so happened that Langham Hotels is located in the neighborhood.

A few blogs (including mine) and some tweets have expressed disgust over how the campaign progressed. Instead of promoting the hotel through blog posts and viral messages via Twitter, such channels are avenues where Langham took a beating.

Brian Koroll, director of electronic marketing & revenue management at Langham Hotels International, didn’t anticipate this would be the outcome. Such marketing campaign was aimed at reaching segments in the market that traditional advertising cannot reach. Instead, the campaign spawned new Langham Hotels slogans such as “Langham Hotels: where white people go to pretend they’re not surrounded by filthy Chinese”.

This could become a classic example of a social media marketing gone bad. Instead of empowering the Western tourists in the video harnessing Hong Kong’s natural blend between East and West, the video has clearly outlined the clash of the two cultures.

Protagonists Douglas White and Kay Ross surely have good intentions in mind, but the campaign’s lack of cultural sensitivity could have driven this campaign to its demise. Ross has been in Hong Kong since 1993, but apparently in the video, she was asked to portray a role as if she’s new in the city.

Amid the ongoing rumblings, Langham Hotels decided to scrap its first foray into social media marketing, which I believe is still in its infancy in Hong Kong. This mishap brings the following thoughts in my mind:

With social media business owners see risk rather than opportunity
It’s now a case of glass half empty instead of glass half full scenario. Careless marketers risk the reputation of destroying a brand which took years to establish and nurture. Why then would business owners venture online if the outcome would be similar to that of Langham Hotels? They might think it is still worth focusing on current marketing practices rather than start dwelling on new media that nobody seems to know how to deal in case a campaign with solid objectives produce counter productive results.

Is the Langham Hotels social marketing fiasco a validation that Hong Kong social media arena has got a lot of catching up to do?
I don’t think the execution was the problem. It is the planning that steered the direction to the wrong way. Things like this also happen elsewhere, even in more mature markets. But what could have prevented this from happening. More budget? More experienced marketers? More time to do research? Or it only manifests a sign that we in the region have a lot of catching up to do? I’m not convinced Hong Kong needs to be a mature market before we produce excellent strategies for social media campaigns. What Hong Kong (or in this case, people behind the Langham Hotel Big Deal marketing) needs to have is shared accountability in all aspects of social media; marketers don’t rely on stakeholders for facts and stakeholders don’t rely on marketers for ideas.

Marketers learn a lesson or two on how to be culturally sensitive
The “Big Deal” campaign was described by Koroll as series of YouTube clips in a guerilla-style with gritty hand-held vision. Alas, the guerilla-style move got ambushed before it could launch a full-scale assault. We may be experts on how to deal with intertwined complex structure of social media elements. But if we leave other factors behind: emotional branding, cultural implications and other factors that involve human interaction, campaigns might never see the light of the day. It’s ironic because we’re using the term “social” and we’re ignoring the interest of some members of the society.

Langham Hotel’s “Big Deal” failure may uncover more inconsistencies
Mong Kok has been known as a place for shopping: aquarium fish, bicycle parts, souvenir items, and microcosm of traditional Hong Kong life. The busy interaction between sellers and buyers has been going on for decades, long before Langham Hotel was erected in the area. So why was Langham Hotel located in Mong Kok if it doesn’t want to keep its guests from being troubled by watch peddlers and other “distractions” in the first place?

There are people hurt, egos touched and plans derailed, but I just hope that we can learn some valuable lessons in the subject of social media using the outcome of this campaign. Langham Hotels involuntarily became a sacrificial lamb already. We should learn something so there will be no need for us to be the next laughingstock.

Photo credit: FredCavazza
Video credit: TheDarkside.HK

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Elmer W. Cagape is an SEO consultant based in Hong Kong. Into Seinfeld, Toad the Wet Sprocket, space exploration, comedy films, digital marketing and travel. Follow him on Twitter (@elmercagape).

18 thoughts on “Learning from Langham Hotels Social Media Experience

  1. Pingback: I Confess: I Truly Don’t Like Eating Chicken’s Feet | Spotlight on Marketing

  2. Dwayne

    Good response Elmer :-) sane as usual!

    I think this really shows a great aspect of social media, which is it's ability to drive accountability in ways that traditional marketing and comms can't. It put the onus of responsibility on creators as much as clients. Can you blame the agency alone? I don't think so. And I think that's a great thing for both parties.

    Reply
  3. Fili An

    Somehow, I missed out on the whole fuss. Very interesting. Since I'm part of that group I'll allow myself to generalize and stereotype – I think this continues the point of expats HK/China/Taiwan generally lacking cultural sensitivity and/or cultural intelligence. I strongly support anything that would help raise awareness against that.

    Thanks for the quick summary.

    Reply
  4. worldtraveller

    I think this is just what happens when the "expat" class is running things without local advisors. I travel to experience local customs and traditions and am appalled at the way other Americans and Europeans look down at other cultures.

    Reply
  5. Mat Harrison

    I think the whole campaign whether intentionally or unintetionally portrays Langham/Eaton hotels positively at the expense of the local culture, customs trully Stink ! Yes, they are daring to be different and maybe some aspects of their videos are stereotypically funny but to promote Langham/Eaton at the expense the local culture is damnright racist even if there are bigots claiming this to be remotely accurate. As a local expat, I can only say shame on Langham & Eaton hotels and their either racist or moronic management team – and for Great Eagle holdings. There are many other hotel choices I will switch my dining business to in Hong Kong and rightly so !

    Reply
  6. creative freelance

    Terrible execution! Like watching a government service tv spot with a tacky sound track from a spy chase movie. What a missed opportunity to do some great creative work. The creatives (client) should be shot for not having the common sense to know what good taste is – even if planning says otherwise. The client was brave enough to go with something mould breaking but was also guilty of poor taste and judgement. Having watched the viral, the intention to be funny was admirable. Having lived in Hong Kong for 5 years, I am quite sure there are other ways it could've been expressed – it was a perfect missed opportunity! What annoys me the most, is seeing the Langham brand being labled as a white oasis when it should be a hotel for anyone who can afford their rates! What's wrong with clients these days? Low budget doesn't mean you have to look for the cheapest creative option and forsake professional standards.

    Reply
  7. PY

    you are right – the problem was in the planning and more specifically in the staffing. Honestly if marketers were not a bunch of expats who after being in Hong Kong for years still cannot say more than two words of Cantonese, this would never have been a problem.

    If the hotel wants to make money on old colonial style and appeal to foreigners by stepping on locals toes that's fine but I fear this is increasingly a losing proposition.

    Hire some Chinese for heaven's sake.

    Reply
  8. AG

    I think it was a good campaign, they reached the objective of "viral" people are talking about it, but… it was the other direction than they have anticipated.

    Reply
  9. creative freelance

    Good publicity or bad publicity translates into bad advertising or good advertising. For a big spending advertiser it means boom or bust. Good advertising does one thing that bad advertising can't: make your consumer feel good about the service or product. Bad advertising destroys your business. Bad advertising can be due to one of the obvious reasons 1). bad art direction 2).bad copywriting; 3). an ignorant, pushy client 4). an arrogant, tight client who think they can art direct and copywrite 4). misinformed marketing strategy.

    Reply
  10. Pingback: Langham vids removed from Youtube - The Dark Side - the other side of Hong Kong

  11. charles Webber

    Langham hotel in HK,

    What an insult to the local people, customers , guests and of course EMPLOYEES.

    Understand where you are living ,working and making a salary, do not look down on other CULTURES and PEOPLE.

    A very poor performance of a HK based hotel company.

    Who is RESPONSIBLE???? Did the top brass of LANGHAM approved this Videos????

    Reply
  12. Gerry

    elmer…am coming to HK v soon for a PR event. Like to reference this case study. You okay with that? Can you contact me with more details. Thx

    Reply
  13. 明日甘心

    This is a nice executive summary you have got there. Thank you for your insightful sharing. Wonder if I could link your wonderful story on my blog, so that more readers may have a chance to learn from your insight ^^ of course, your full credit will be properly addressed on my blog too ;)

    Reply
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