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.


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