Marriott usually excels in diplomacy. It has hotel properties in more than 120 countries and territories. However, the worldview held by one corner of its marketing department has landed the firm in hot water. Chinese authorities shuttered its local website, albeit only for a week, over an online survey. On the form, Marriott listed Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as separate countries.
Nationalist sentiment seems to have overwhelmed Marriott’s attempt at damage control, given the degree of public shaming on Weibo, a Chinese-language service similar to Twitter. Market regulators have opened an investigation into suspected violations of cybersecurity and advertisement laws. Marriott’s chief executive, Arne Sorenson, rallied with an apology: “We don’t support anyone who subverts the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China and we do not intend in any way to encourage or incite any such people or groups.”
Marriott is not alone in this mistake. Coca-Cola, Burberry, and Apple, among others, have stumbled in the treacherous terrain of Chinese sovereignty. Other multinationals may repeat the error in the future. The interesting twist in the Marriott case is the degree of outcry over social-media channels. That sort of groundswell will ultimately impact the bottom line more than a traditional reprimand from public officials. ■
Our Vantage Point: When operating in emerging markets, multinationals sometimes forget that routine effort can become an act of lèse-majesté. One reason is that developing-world nations are unusually sensitive about Western perceptions of their countries.
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Image: Shanghai is among those Chinese cities where Marriott is rolling out its Fairfield brand. Credit: SeanPavonePhoto at Can Stock Photo Inc.