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Home  /  Inside China  /  Foreign brands in China and their twofold approach to Chinese tradition
Foreign brands in China and their twofold approach to Chinese tradition print version
Western brands in China often face a dilemma when adapting to the local culture. These brands gain popularity by symbolizing modernity and designing cultural trends, while on the other hand these enterprises wish to avoid clashes with traditional customs.

Foreign brands in China normally attempt to offer something new to Chinese consumers and to direct future consumer styles. Since the middle class and young Chinese are a big consumption force, most brands attempt to carry a meaning of good taste, urban lifestyle, modernity and in many cases also of a developed foreign culture. A simplistic overview can determine that foreign brands induce the movement away from traditional Chinese culture in terms of lifestyle, necessities, entertainment, etc.

However, this process is not so one-sided. In previous articles, we have shown that McDonalds in China, while being marketed as a copy of the American format, is a diner where Chinese people sit for many hours. Unlike most Western branches, in China the décor and the seats are inviting a long hangout. While McDonalds, along with KFC and other enterprises have introduced the fast food culture in China, they have also made adjustments, making the meaning of 'fast food' attractive to the local developing culture. Similarly, Pizza Hut in China is a semi-fancy restaurant with a thick menu, where pizza is by no means the only main course. While Pizza Hut offers modernity, it also establishes a new cultural meaning as a middle class hangout, misleading customers who believe that this is merely an extension of a Western dining style.

Returning to McDonalds, a ten year old essay by Eckhardt and Houston examined the different meanings of the fast food chain in Shanghai, trying to understand the which occasions bring customers to McDonalds and which lead people to stay away and choose a more traditional dining space. The research found a clear contrast between a romantic date of a young couple and a large family celebration (including 2-3 generations), as the former regards McDonalds as a suitable choice while the latter finds it very inappropriate.

A large family get-together is an event that is associated with traditional culture. The presence of elder family members and the traditional-Chinese flavor of a family reunion (the tradition can be a comfortable 'cushion' that blurs generation gaps to some extent) lead families to prefer a 'Chinese' restaurant. More specifically, a family meeting highlights inner-family social hierarchy. The sitting arrangements around a large round table, as seen in traditional restaurants, address this hierarchy. The possibility to sit in a private room gives the event even greater festive flavor, something that cannot be found in McDonalds. Furthermore, in such dinner, members often seek to order a variety of special dishes and sense that their dining experience is unique compared to the surrounding tables. Standardized McDonalds' menus hardly offer interesting dishes, nor do they serve alcohol, making them less favorable for the masculine presence.

When it comes to a romantic date, the same disadvantages of McDonalds turn into positive features. The romantic dynamics makes alcohol less suitable during a date. The fact that McDonalds has only one big space, not offering private rooms, is something that couples seem to appreciate, as they enjoy being seen by others (and thus gaining face). Furthermore, youngsters who still reside with their parents, find much more privacy in this public space than they do in their 'private' homes. This adds an extra romantic flavor to the McDonalds' date. Clearly, as young generations are more attracted by Western consumption styles, they also frequent McDonalds more than other age groups. The fact that in China McDonalds is a comfortable hangout, allows couples to enjoy long dates under the supervision of 'Uncle Ronald'.

The unique appeal of McDonalds to Chinese couples is an interesting development compared to the fast-food dining style that is salient in the West. This new meaning is a result of the differences between Chinese and Western branches and the fact that in China McDonalds symbolizes modernity, but also with complex issues of tradition versus individualization. For example, many Chinese women customers enjoy McDonalds as an environment which is sterilized of traditional masculine elements that are found in Chinese restaurants.

While McDonalds is definitely a flourishing soil for romantic encounters, it is clear that in some cases, couples would choose a more fancy location or a space that allows them greater privacy. Young students might find the Big Macs inviting, while more 'tasteful' (and wealthy) couples will turn to brands that are more sophisticated. In developed Chinese cities such as Shanghai, the variety of products and dining locations could add other dimensions to the choice made by couples and families.

Nevertheless, the above research results, though not overwhelming, do illustrate how issues of modernity and tradition interact when introducing or consuming a brand in urban China. While foreign fast-food chains make adaptations to the local culture, which allow them to expand their target crowd, in cases such as family reunions they cannot compete with the local dining style. While learning the local customs, most foreign brands remain fixed on young generations and insist on symbolizing 'modernity' or a 'foreign lifestyle'. McDonalds cannot really compete with the diverse food served by big traditional restaurants, but it manages to maintain an image that is distant from the 'trashy' orientation that the chain has in the West.

Considerations of modernity and tradition, both in the direct marketing techniques and in subtle elements in the customers' experience are of great importance for brands growing roots in the Chinese cultural realm. While not clashing violently with longstanding local values, successful brands acknowledge the need to add a new element to the Chinese market and thus not only adapt, but also design the local cultural repertoire.

Source: Giana M. Eckhardt, Michael J. Houston (2002). Cultural Paradoxes Reflected in Brand Meaning: McDonald’s in Shanghai, China. Journal of International Marketing.

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