Genuine respect or cynical strategy?

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Chinese food
Chinese food https://unsplash.com/@ruthyyang

We have, on past occasions, referenced the pitfalls and dangers of trying to leverage another’s culture for marketing and financial gain. Even if, in the very rare instances the motive is pure and not driven by marketing or economic reasons, it is, in our view not something to be taken lightly.

As a quick background and overview to our story KFC and McDonald’s have recently taken traditional Chinese Street Food and added it to their menu. Now, if you have spend more than 48 hours in China and actually stepped outside the comfort zone of your 5 star hotel, you will understand the term street food.

For those who are scratching their heads with visions of left over bits of bread or noodles lying in the gutter, no, That street food is generally deposited in the early hours of the mornings, usually weekend, by persons who have imbibed to much alcoholic beverage with their last meal. It is not a “cultural” or traditional Chinese food. Indeed, it is not even unique to China. We have witnessed same, and much, much worse in many countries.

Street Food -a quick explanation.

Uhhm, on second thoughts maybe a quick explanation is not possible. We may do another, longer post on that later. So lets just say, in China at least, Street Food is the original fast food here. A guy with a portable or fixed stand on the street who, depending on where you live, sell pizza, hotdogs, toasted sandwiches, waffles.

No shop or store. She cooks in the open air on a gas bottle fired cooker. You stand, and eat, in the open air. No council health certificate, no sanitary conditions. The entire preparation and cooking process is open and transparent for all to see. As well as the dust, grime and general pollution as these places are generally set up on busy streets and high pedestrian traffic spots, such as bus stops or subway stations.

Actually, in hindsight that wasn’t such a bad quick explanation! Moving on. International chains, such as BK, McDonald’s and KFC etall globally “tweak” their menu for local tastes, Heck, even your local Chinese takeaway or restaurant is most likely not serving authentic Chinese food. Try asking for “Sweet and sour pork” in China! Rather it has been modified for the palate of which ever nation they are in. Standard good business opractice.

However, in what some are saying is a step or 10 too far, McDonald’s and KFC are adding items like Chinese burgers or ice cream doused in chilli oil, to their menu.

How did this pan out?

As one might expect, the reaction from Chinese consumers has been mixed. From confusion to amusement to hostility. So why do it in the first place?
Well, the reasons are many and varied. Perhaps the chains genuinely want to recognise awesome Chinese culture, cuisine and the might Chinese people. A mark of respect?

But lets not forget, over the past 4 years, Chinese consumers have not taken too kindly to US admin’s attempts to curtail what they see as their right to enjoy global expansion as much as the next bloke. Some US brands have lost their shine, popularity and by extension, market share. Perhaps menu modifications were seen as a way to win back Chinese hearts? And E-wallets?

We should also factor in the devastating impact of Covid 19 during most of 2020. In particular the 2020 and 2021 Chinese Gvt driven restrictions on travel and mass public gatherings which decimated the hospitality industry. Not only did people not travel, but restaurants were ordered closed or restricted in their operations. Fast food places included. Another motivation to try to increase the number of bums on seat and recoup some lost revenue?

Finally, there may have been more subtle overtones behind this strategy. For several years now, local Gvts in many provinces have been rounding up and closing down street food vendors in the name of health and sanitation. Recall my comment above re open to dust and pollution. Could it be the US fast food Chains saw a niche they might be able to exploit and are testing the waters?

Here endeth the background story. For an indepth report and longer read, please refer to the original article from China Culture, a division of China Daily. We would love to get your feedback, what do you think? If another cultures food outlet started messing with your local cuisine, how would you feel? How would you react? As always we also welcome questions around marketing or branding of your product or service in China.

Published by The Bic

Bicyu is a NZ registered, British owned MarTech business based in Beijing providing marketing, tech, education and information services to European, NZ, Australian, UK, African, and Asian firms doing business in China. We work with local ones too. We've been here doing this since 2003. We also incorporate Aim2D and Uengager in our small brand list.

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