Last week, Apple launched RED, a special-edition iPhone. An undisclosed portion of sales of the phone will support The Global Fund to Fight AIDS. But the product is strangely missing from the Chinese version of Apple's website, which promotes a red phone but has no mention of the disease.
Apple didn't respond to my question about why that's the case. But my colleague Jingsi Christina Wu, a professor of media studies at Hofstra University, said the Chinese government probably didn't approve of the RED message.
Although HIV/AIDS is a major public health challenge for China, she said the government doesn't generally like to acknowledge it openly. Part of the problem is its association with homosexuality and sexually transmitted diseases in general -- subjects the government still considers somewhat taboo.
According to Human Rights Watch, the country has threatened and suppressed the work of HIV activists.
It's understandable that Apple is concerned about keeping the Chinese government happy; the country has banned other technology companies, such as Facebook and Twitter. But for Apple, the decision likely won't be worth the costs.
Instead, it could have negative repercussions far beyond the country.
In our hyper-connected world, there's no such thing as a local public relations strategy. Brands may tailor their messages differently for particular parts of the world, but anything they do can easily be accessed via the internet by customers in other nations.
HIV activists around the globe are not going to be happy to hear that Apple isn't actively promoting this product in China. So the move may call the company's commitment to fighting the disease into question -- which is, of course, the opposite of the company's intended goal in launching (PRODUCT)RED.
Ikea made a similar mistake in 2012, when it airbrushed images of women out of their catalogues in Saudi Arabia. This may have seemed appropriate for the local market, but when women in other parts of the world found out, they were outraged. "It is impossible to retouch women out of reality," Sweden's then-trade minister told the press. The company later apologised and acknowledged that the decision was not in line with its values.
The latest advert for the luxury brand leads us to believe French are lazy, spending their time relishing their paid holidays. Charming.
Similarly, a 2014 Cadillac commercial about the American dream that made fun of workers in other countries who take "the whole of August off" was perceived as "anti-French" in the French media. As one Paris-based magazine complained, "The latest advert for the luxury brand leads us to believe the French are lazy, spending their time relishing their paid holidays. Charming."
The company later clarified that it was meant to serve as a "brand provocation."
That's why global companies need to choose values they can defend globally -- and uphold them consistently.
This apparent concession to the Chinese government is especially discordant with the brand identity Apple has worked hard to cultivate. Last year, for example, chief executive Tim Cook stood up to the US government by fighting an order to unlock the cell phone of a terrorism suspect, arguing that it would undermine civil liberties. And he took a controversial stance against North Carolina's legislation restricting the rights of transgender people to use bathrooms matching their chosen gender identities -- even at the risk of alienating conservative customers.
Another reason why it's a bad idea for Apple to try to stand for different things in different countries is because, if they do, many people won't want their products anymore. In an early-2000s study of businesses in 41 countries, the firm Research International dubbed the most successful and well-known companies "master brands."
Some brands try to present themselves as home-grown because consumers prefer to think that their milk, for example, comes from a local dairy rather than a multinational conglomerate.
Consumers around the globe value such brands precisely because of their global identities: A teenager drinking a Coke or texting on an iPhone in Lagos wants the same experience as his or her counterparts in Los Angeles. But if Apple acts like a different brand in different places, customers will be less likely to covet its products.
Other brands have more leeway. In the same study, Research International named products which are sold by international companies like Nestle but marked as local brands "GloCal." Some brands try to present themselves as home-grown because consumers prefer to think that their milk, for example, comes from a local dairy rather than a multinational conglomerate.
Companies selling GloCal brands can champion different values on behalf of different products, as long as the messages the parent company is sending don't conflict with one another.
But Apple is a master brand, so it can't get away with having different identities in different places. And it shouldn't want to, anyway. People around the globe love Apple because of what it stands for. That can't change based on what's convenient.