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Global Brands Face Boycotts as they Retreat from Xinjiang


This post is part of our “Story Behind the Story” series, where we dissect online narratives and their impact on some of the biggest consumer brands.

Groups Are Pressuring Apparel Brands to Distance Themselves From China

Global brands are facing backlash and calls for boycotts after taking a stand and addressing the forced labor and human rights violations in the Xinjiang region of China — a major cotton production region that’s almost twice the size of Texas. Human rights and activist groups, along with other influential groups have been focused on Xinjiang re-education camps, concentration camps, and the overall exploitation of Uyghurs and Muslims in the region. These large online groups are continuously pressuring fashion and apparel companies to take more action and distance themselves from that area of China. The top brands involved include, Nike, Adidas, New Balance, H&M, North Face, Gap, Puma, and more.

Many of these companies have historically invested in selling products to the growing Chinese consumer class. But now, many apparel brands have issued statements and have communicated with their suppliers that the Xinjiang cotton region is off limits, sparking calls for boycotts from Chinese State Media. Public statements from brands are being misconstrued by Chinese consumers and the government, saying that they are attacking China and damaging the country’s economy in the process. 

Boycotts Impact Brands’ Bottom Lines

Boycott calls and criticism from China and their state-run media outlets have led to dramatic decreases in sales in April, making it tough for brands to preserve their relationship with the Chinese consumer class. Apparel companies are purging Xinjiang cotton to maintain relations with European and North American markets, but labor activists and coordinated factions are still targeting brands who have not yet made statements, charging them with complicity in this repression of Xinjiang Uyghurs and muslim minorities. Communications teams at these brands will have to act fast and remain sensitive to avoid damage to their reputation and dodge potential legal enforcement.

Which Factions are Involved and What is Their Influence on the Conversation?

Over the course of the last two weeks, we’ve seen the power dynamics shift from the Chinese State Media faction to the Hong Kong Anti-China Protestors Faction whose agendas directly oppose each other. Two weeks ago, both factions were highly engaged with the narrative, and driving a significant portion of the conversation. Typically, when a faction drives more than 2% of the conversation, then they have influence over that conversation and their voice is louder than any others’ engaging with the narrative. 

Moreover, the conversation at this time was trending toward inauthentic, meaning the factions were likely leaning into tactics like astroturfing to manipulate the conversation.

Over the last week, the Chinese State Media faction has influence over the conversation and, it’s the Hong Kong Anti-China Protestors faction that is now driving more of the influence.

Fringe trolls and right-wing groups are also part of the conversation, and worth monitoring since they are generally great at crafting narratives in hard-to-monitor spaces online and spreading misinformation by trading up to get it trending in the mainstream. 

Engagement from influential public figures has increased as well, signaling a milestone for the narrative, indicating that it has entered the mainstream, where it will receive a higher volume of organic and authentic engagement — once it trends, it’s true. A recent example of this type of activity would be when British politician, David Alton, posted on Twitter, acknowledging the genocidal events in China and calling out the importance of preserving the culture of Uyghur people.

Recommendations for Strategic Communication Teams

Strategic communications teams need to understand the values and morals that are important to stakeholders and core customer groups, and take stances on important issues that align with them. Teams will also have to address any distracting narratives and/or confusion around their public statements and brand policies. Remaining sensitive and planning an empathetic response will work to preserve long-term relationships with both Middle Eastern and Western markets. But one question remains: how exactly can teams protect their brand from emerging, faction-driven narratives like this? 

Yonder’s proactive social intelligence solution uses AI to identify and diagnose the trajectory of emerging narratives. Faction insights can let your team know who is driving conversations and can reveal where these groups are most active on both fringe and mainstream platforms. This all works to fill in analytical blindspots your team may have, giving you ample time to triage, plan, and potentially act before your brand reputation is affected.

Set up a quick meeting with our team to learn more.

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