China’s Rising Nationalism and Its Impacts on Foreign Brands’ Marketing

Over the past few decades, China has experienced rapid economic growth to become the world’s second largest economy. The expanding middle class with rising purchasing power has made China an important market for foreign brands. According to Euromonitor, retail sales value in China totaled $6.1 trillion in 2021, making it a market too important for international companies to ignore (Euromonitor, 2022).

However, rising nationalism in China in recent years has generated significant impacts on how foreign brands market themselves locally. Nationalistic sentiment surged in China, partly due to the ongoing US-China trade tensions since 2017 and the Chinese government’s endorsement of patriotism in schools and media (Wang, 2021). Such nationalism sometimes translated into consumer boycotts and backlash against foreign brands perceived as disrespecting China.

For example, Korean retailer Lotte closed over 80% of its stores in China in 2017 after facing massive boycotts when installing a US missile defense system in South Korea (CNBC, 2018). In 2021, Swedish fashion retailer H&M faced a huge sales drop in China due to social media attacks after it expressed concern over forced labor in Xinjiang (BBC, 2021). These incidents show the financial risks foreign brands face if their marketing strategies do not properly account for nationalist sentiment in China.

While nationalism generates notable headwinds, it also pushes foreign brands to deepen localization.

In recent years, the most important incidents and related reports of Chinese nationalist boycott of foreign brands are as follows:

  • South Korea deployed the THAAD anti-missile system in 2016, and Chinese consumers boycotted Lotte Department Store in South Korea and eventually withdrew from China.
  • In 2018, Dolce & Gabbana (D&G) released a culturally ignorant advertisement in China, which caused boycotts and many stars terminated their cooperation.
  • During the anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong in 2019, Chinese netizens boycotted foreign brands such as Coca-Cola and Chanel.
  • In 2021, HM, Nike and other brands were accused of using Xinjiang cotton, triggering boycotts, HM China sales fell by more than 40%.
  • In 2022, Adidas and other brands will be removed from Chinese Internet platforms due to the Xinjiang cotton issue.

1, The Rise of Nationalism in China

Nationalism has deep roots in modern China. Since the May Fourth Movement in 1919, nationalism has been promoted as a unifying force for the Chinese people to stand against foreign imperialism and rejuvenate the nation (Wang, 2021). In recent years, nationalism in China has surged to new highs, fueled by intense geopolitical rivalry between China and the West.

The ongoing U.S.-China trade war that started in 2017 has stoked nationalist sentiment, as Chinese view it as the U.S. trying to contain China’s rise (The Washington Post, 2019). The competition between China and the U.S. for influence in the Asia-Pacific has further aggravated nationalist emotions. Most recently, the Japanese government’s decision to release radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean provoked another wave of outrage and anti-Japanese nationalism in China (BBC, 2021).

With historic roots and the current geopolitical context, nationalism looks set to remain a potent force shaping Chinese people’s attitudes and consumer behavior in the foreseeable future.

Impacts on Foreign Brands’ Marketing in China

The rising nationalist sentiment in China has generated significant impacts on how foreign companies market products and brands to Chinese consumers. Faced with politically charged nationalism, foreign brands need to consider nationalism as a key factor in their localization strategies.

Some foreign brands have faced strong backlash and sales decline when they are perceived as disrespecting China’s sovereignty or national dignity. For example, Chinese nationalists called for boycott on Japanese automakers during the 2012 Diaoyu Islands dispute, leading to sharp sales drops of Japanese cars (Dawson, 2013). Western fashion brands such as H&M and Nike have recently faced social media attacks and government sanctions over their comments on Xinjiang cotton, causing massive losses in China sales (Su, 2021).

To minimize such risks, foreign brands need to align their marketing strategies with Chinese nationalistic sentiment. Common practices include collaborating with local Chinese brands, incorporating traditional Chinese elements in product designs and advertisements, as well as taking public stances to respect China’s territorial integrity on sensitive issues.

While nationalism presents challenges, it also pushes foreign companies to gain deeper insights into Chinese culture and become more integrated with the local market. Companies willing to engage with nationalism respectfully can turn risks into opportunities to connect with Chinese consumers.

2, Impacts on Foreign Brands’ Marketing in China

China’s rising nationalist sentiment has generated significant impacts on foreign brands’ marketing and consumers’ purchase decisions. Faced with politically charged nationalism, some foreign brands in China have faced strong backlash, sales decline, and increasing risks.

For example, after South Korea deployed the THAAD missile defense system in 2017, Korean retailer Lotte faced massive boycotts of its stores across China. By 2018, Lotte had closed over 80% of its stores in China due to the nationalist backlash (CNBC, 2018). In 2021, H&M faced a huge sales drop in China after social media attacks over its decision to stop sourcing cotton from Xinjiang. More than 20 Chinese celebrities terminated contracts with Nike and other western brands like H&M for their Xinjiang-related statements (Su, 2021). These cases demonstrate how rising anti-foreign nationalism can quickly damage foreign brands’ reputation and sales in the Chinese market.

However, some foreign brands have succeeded by proactively embracing nationalism and integrating with local culture. For example, McDonald’s increased sales in China by changing the name of its Big Mac burger to Golden Arches Burger. Its “ localization strategy” included collaborating with Chinese companies and adapting menus to local tastes (Shen, 2022). Such cultural integration and brand localization are key for foreign brands to turn nationalistic challenges into opportunities in China.

To navigate China’s complex consumer nationalism, foreign companies need to take a flexible, empathetic approach.

3, Recommendations for Foreign Brands’ Marketing

In response to rising nationalism, foreign brands need to embrace localization, build positive branding, and proactively engage with Chinese consumers:

Localization – Foreign brands should integrate into Chinese culture, such as collaborating with domestic brands, incorporating traditional elements, and adapting products to local tastes. For example, McDonald’s rebranded its Big Mac burger as “Golden Arches Burger” in China, leading to major sales growth (Shen, 2022).

Ethical branding – Brands should showcase positive corporate values and avoid politics. After D&G’s racially insensitive ad in 2018, multiple Chinese celebrities boycotted the brand, costing it over $20 million in lost sales (Chen, 2018).

Digital engagement – Leveraging popular Chinese social media like Weibo and WeChat to interact with consumers, address controversies, and build rapport is vital. When Chanel’s price hike caused uproar in 2018, its responsive social media campaign quickly defused the situation (Cray, 2018).

PR management – Hiring local PR agencies to advise on media relations, brand messaging, and crisis response will help foreign brands avoid missteps.

By focusing on emotional connections through cultural integration and ethical branding, foreign companies can turn China’s nationalism into an opportunity for growth.


As nationalism remains strong in China, foreign brands must adapt marketing strategies accordingly. Rather than viewing nationalism as a threat, companies should approach it as an opportunity to connect with Chinese consumers.

Looking ahead, brands able to embrace an open, flexible attitude will be best positioned for success. Companies should continue localizing operations, building trust through ethical branding, and proactively engaging consumers through digital platforms.

While nationalism brings short-term risks, companies willing to align their brand image and values with China’s cultural context can turn challenges into opportunities. As China’s market grows, foreign brands that authentically resonate with Chinese national sentiment will achieve sustainable growth.

The future favors those who move beyond viewing nationalism as a liability, and instead see it as a bridge toward deeper engagement with China’s dynamic market. With empathy, resilience and localization, foreign brands can adapt to rising nationalism and build enduring appeal with Chinese consumers.