Featured image: McDonald’s named one of its products after the Turkish population.
By Rada Pavlova
America’s national cuisine has never been strictly defined. When we talk about American food, we talk about hamburgers, hotdogs, fries: foods that have been purposefully made to suit everyone’s taste. There are no exotic spices, risky recipes, or unconventional combinations of ingredients. American food does not have any exceptional characteristics, and still, it has managed to take over some of the most renowned cuisines in the food world. What drives Western food industry’s global success if not the uniqueness and quality of its products?
Most of us are already aware of the immense popularity that companies like McDonalds and KFC have gained over the past few decades. What is interesting, however, is how nonselective they are in their expansionist approaches. Such chains have found a way to thrive on any land they step on and in any culture they enter. From Western Europe through the Middle East and all the way to East Asia, fast-food companies have taken less than 30 years to establish themselves as the dominant power in the food market. The massive trend of globalization that the world has experienced in recent times is well reflected in the globalization of food, but what does it take for these globalizing economies to become so successful abroad?
The interior of the McDonald’s restaurant located on Champs-Élysées.
It takes “glocalization”–a process of adapting to local demands and preferences while also operating on the global scene. The term “glocalization” originated in Japan, where it was used to describe the agricultural practice of adapting to local conditions. However, it has recently been re-adopted by business people and has been used to challenge the simplicity of a simple globalization strategy. “Glocalization” brings the process of international expansion to a higher level. It encaptures the success of worldwide businesses who have managed to adapt to foreign cultures and societies; the most familiar example is the American fast-food industry.
Western companies have taken pride in their ability to acclimate to distant parts of the world. Coca-Cola’s personal statement, “We are not multinational, we are multilocal,” is reflective of American fast-food chains’ pursuit of transnational integration. They portray their goal not to be introducing American food to the foreign cuisine, but rather introducing the foreign cuisine to American food. Products are designed specifically to appeal to local tastes by taking into account various cultural factors–religious beliefs, traditions, gender roles, folklore, etc. Companies wish to counteract people’s doubtful approach towards unfamiliar foods, practices and cultures by showing that they are there to adapt rather than enforce change. Such notions appear a bit idealistic, and fast-food chains’ presence in non-Western cultures in the past few decades has shown that adaptation is not one-sided but, instead, is working both ways.
Companies like McDonalds, KFC, and Dunkin Donuts have become an integral part of places with no previous exposure to the Western world. Such success stories require deep understanding of local tastes and preferences. Fast-food chains face the challenge of making hamburgers and french fries appear more attractive than the food people had been eating their whole life. Western food companies have now broken into the three most renowned cuisines in the world–Turkish, French and Chinese. A royal kitchen, long dynastical history, and access to fresh ingredients and various spices are among the reasons these countries turned into culinary giants. Their fame is built on their cuisine’s unique identity and the variety of cooking techniques–the complete opposite of what defines American fast-food. And still the merge of those two–a traditional, extraordinary flavor and a generic, all-appealing taste — seems to produce the biggest success.
Due to the country’s rich history and the various migrations of its people throughout the years, Turkish cuisine has become the epitome of multiculturalism. The combination of Turk, Ottoman, Arabic, Greek, and Persian influences has resulted in a diversity of ingredients and flavors which characterize the Turkish kebabs, meze, dolmas, and pastries. One of the most important reasons that Turkey is a world culinary giant is the country’s access to fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and other foods. Thus, a game-changing glocalizing strategy for the McDonald’s restaurants, which started opening doors on Turkish territory in the 80s, has been the switch to purchasing products from local food suppliers. Between the years 2000 and 2016, the fast-food company’s profits in the country increased more than 10 times, along with a 25% increase in locally supplied ingredients. Moreover, in 2000 McDonald’s menu incorporated a only one Turkish dish; by 2016, there were eight dishes. Such change was triggered by the downfall of the chain’s business in the year 2002, when 60 of its restaurants were forced to shut down due to a major decrease in demand.
Mangal and Kofte Burger are among the most popular glocalized foods that McDonald’s has introduced on the Turkish market. The creation of those products portrays the globalization of the concept of an American burger and the localization of its individual components. A marketing strategy of this kind assures the consumer that Western chains can be a perfect fit for the local cuisine. According to Mehmed Can Olgac, a first-year student from Turkey, fast-food has even managed to escape restaurant places and enter one’s house. Turkish supermarkets started selling frozen burger patties for people to prepare at home. When asked whether American food suits the Turkish cuisine, only 20% of the participants in the survey conducted answered with a definite “No” compared to 56% who said “Yes.”
The integration of Western fast-food chains into the non-Western world has not been welcomed by all nations. Unlike the Turkish population, the majority of the French population perceives the immense popularity of American companies as a threat to the country’s identity. France has long taken pride in its cuisine; French dining memorializes specific recipes and dining habits that have been passed down from generation to generation. In France, children become the subject of “palate” training, an appreciation for high-quality food, as early as the age of three. Building proper eating habits is an integral part of one’s upbringing. Characteristic of French food etiquette is the tendency to set aside long periods of time for individual meals. Thus, the whole nature of French dining has been reformed by the newly arisen possibility of grabbing a quick, affordable, and very low-effort lunch from the nearest “viennoiserie” (bakery). The French created their own version of fast-food corners where one could either sit in or walk away with a baguette sandwich in hand. Such places set the scene for what was to be introduced by Western economies in the 80s.
With the appearance and growing abundance of American fast-food chains in Paris, the goal of marketing strategies was not only to integrate French products into the American menu, but also to make Western companies appear as the most local of all. French people express extreme pride in their heritage and rich culture. Thus, any foreign influence would generally be rejected. Taking this into account, advertising techniques of Western food chains were designed to appeal to as many characteristics of French cuisine as possible–from the love of salads to the resentment of genetically modified food. When asked about what lies behind the global success of fast-food chains, Professor Olav Sorenson from the School of Management acknowledged the industry’s effort to sell the image of America abroad. The way the American image was presented, however, was not as a distant unfamiliar concept but rather as a part of the local world. McDonald’s created the slogan “McDonald’s. Born in the USA. Made in France” to show the public that the two places can go hand in hand.
Introducing the McRoyale and Filet-o-Fish turned out to be insufficient, and new techniques were adopted to imitate the French atmosphere. Fast-food chains revolutionized the whole interior space of their restaurants, integrating works of art as wall decor and switching traditional pieces of furniture to unconventional ones. One of McDonald’s franchisees in Toulouse replaced the normal bar stools with bicycle seats to appeal to the French sense of aesthetics. Later on, the American chain went as far as to switch its most distinctive and representative figure, Ronald McDonald, to the French comic character “Asterix.” Such fundamental changes to the company’s character is proof of its determination to do whatever it takes to reach success on the global scene, putting no limits to its marketing enterprises.
The growth of Western companies in China is an example of the two-sided process of adaptation and localization when it comes to expansion abroad. On the one hand, a lot of McDonald’s and KFC’s marketing strategies aimed at addressing current trends in the Chinese society. The image of cleanliness and high levels of hygiene that such companies brought from the West was a major factor in their initial popularity. Domestic businesses in China did not pay attention to the experience they provide their customers. Hongxi Yang, a medical graduate exchange student from China, reports that the difference between the two is seen even in the packages which were used for takeout food. Moreover, Western fast-food restaurants were choosing much more strategic locations, and their close proximity to populated business areas made them more convenient for the white-collar worker.
The good service and friendly environment made Chinese families pick restaurants such as KFC when they went out. With the enforcement of the one-child policy, children became the focus of attention in Chinese society. Following this trend, Western fast-food chains redesigned their marketing strategies to target parents, and the youth became their highest priority customers. KFC restaurants renovated the space to include smaller chairs and lower counters; they introduced playground areas and started offering the option of birthday celebrations. The company also collaborated with schools to cater during sporting events and came up with the idea of using “Chicky”–a chicken kids character–as its Chinese mascot.
A birthday celebration with Chicky in a Chinese KFC restaurant.
Despite the various Chinese characteristics that fast-food chains adopted to succeed in the local environment, their image remained primarily Western, causing significant cultural changes among the population. Local customers lost a part of their Chinese identity as they experienced major shifts in dietary habits. Chopsticks were no longer the primary eating tool, snacks took over proper meals, and leaving right after one is finished eating slowly became the norm. The growth of Western economies homogenized Chinese culture to the extent that it introduced global dietary standards that have been unfamiliar before; at the same time, they heterogenized global products to fit Chinese preferences. Is food globalization a form of cultural imperialism? It’s hard to say.
The success of fast-food chains abroad and the marketing techniques used to appeal to the local population show a great understanding of what customers desire. Companies created products that were the perfect mixture of the glamorous image of the Western world and the traditional cuisine. Restaurant spaces were designed to reflect the local taste and, at the same time, provide what local industries could not. Advertisements aimed at presenting global companies as fully suiting the local environments, and the immense fame they gained, proves the notion that one piece, with slight alterations, can fit all. Whether globalization of food industries brought cultures together or simply allowed America to enter all other cultures and leave a permanent mark is a difficult question. Homogenization of eating habits and cuisines has been the natural result of the emerging transnational business practices. It is plausible that years from now, there will not be any distinguished culinary giants, but rather one global cuisine–a melting pot of culinary influences from all across the Earth. Each country will then have to adapt to the global eating culture, instead of the other way around.
Rada Pavlola is a first-year in Pauli Murray. You can contact her at email@example.com.