For quite some time, there has been a visibly growing fascination for the West in China. It is especially evident among the younger generation incorporating Western fashion, lifestyle and cuisine into their daily lives. The well-known fast food chain McDonald’s is one of those western brands that has successfully entered the Chinese market. In fact, McDonald’s is currently one of the most popular fast food chains in this country. So it might be interesting to see how McDonald’s has evolved in China over the years, as well as how the Western brand managed to maintain its popularity over time.
McDonald’s early years in China
The first McDonald’s (also known in China as 麦当劳 – Màidāngláo) opened in Taipei in 1984, while the first restaurant in mainland China opened in 1990. Three years later, KFC opened its first restaurant in Beijing.
The first McDonald’s in mainland China opened in Shenzhen, in the southern part of the country. When the first Special Economic Zone was established in China in 1980, recently implemented liberal reforms allowed Western brands to open stores in China. McDonald’s was one of them. Two years later, the second McDonald’s restaurant in mainland China opened in Beijing and was, at the time, the largest McDonald’s restaurant in the world. On the day of its inauguration, a thousand workers served more than forty thousand clients.
In 1996, McDonald’s had opened 29 restaurants in Beijing alone.
McDonald’s growth in China
When McDonald’s made its first debut in the Chinese market, its target audience was middle-class Chinese citizens. At the beginning of the 21st century, McDonald’s began to attract more of a younger audience due to increased marketing and the growing impact of pop culture. The famous slogan “I love it” also came to China as 我 就 喜欢 – “I just like it.”
The first McCafe in China opened in 2001, and the first McDrive in 2005. As McDonald’s popularity grew, all restaurants in China were open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Due to their rapid expansion into the Chinese market, McDonald’s restaurants became an integral aspect of the Chinese city landscape. To win more customers, McDonald’s began employing a new strategy in China. The brand reduced the American symbolism in China and incorporated more menu options with a Chinese twist.
As of 2020, there are around 3,300 McDonald’s restaurants in China, 150 thousand employees. In 2017, McDonald’s had served more than 1.3 billion customers. In addition, McDonald’s Corp plans to nearly double the number of stores in mainland China by 2022. According to the popular statement 我们 的 一 小步 ， 世界 的 一 大步 (“a small step for us, it is a big step for the world” ) McDonald’s in China now focuses on serving organic and sustainably grown food, following “green” trends in the world.
Western brands and Chinese mentality
McDonald’s popularity perfectly shows China’s mindset towards copyright law. The famous golden arches logo, for example, has often been recreated by other local restaurants. In fact, it is not surprising to find a restaurant with that same logo under the name “Mr. Mahmoud «.
This “copycat” mentality has been deeply ingrained in Chinese culture for centuries and can be seen in various Chinese products. On the one hand, it is an important aspect of Chinese culture that investors planning to expand their business in the Chinese market should be aware of. On the other hand, this shows that a brand’s image plays a key role in its popularity in China because the more a brand’s logo is copied, the more modern it becomes.
When McDonald’s made its debut in the Chinese market, it was seen as a symbol of luxury and the Western world. Its image has changed since it attracted Chinese consumers both young and old.
How does McDonald’s adapt to its Chinese consumers?
McDonald’s association with Western culture played an important role in its success in China. Therefore, when the brand first entered the Chinese market, the Chinese menu was not much different from those available in the US or Europe. However, the company took a couple of steps to attract Chinese customers and lower its production costs.
McDonald’s restaurants in China offer various Chinese dishes, such as youtiao (油条, Chinese fried dough), pastries filled with taro (an exotic type of sweet potato). Also, green tea is not only used to make teas, but it is also used in sweets and hamburger buns, giving them a vivid green color.
Even the name of the burger in Chinese is an interesting case. When we take a look at the Chinese translation of the word hamburger (汉堡 – hànbǎo), the first character used can be translated as “China” or “Chinese”, which could imply a certain closeness to Chinese culture.
Various forms of promotion have been used to promote McDonald’s in China, including food packaging inspired by Chinese video games. McDonald’s menu options in China also had to adapt to the availability of ingredients in the local market. Therefore, due to the lack of reasonably priced cheese in China, Chinese burgers use imitations of cheese, similar to rubber. While the difference is imperceptible to Chinese customers, as they don’t eat cheese regularly, foreigners will quickly notice the difference.
How can you grow your business in China?
What can Western exporters learn from such tactics? First, it is crucial to pay attention to China’s economic situation (which includes market conditions, prices, taxes, etc.) and its culture. Understanding Chinese culture and the mindset of its people is important in terms of the success of McDonald’s marketing campaigns in China. Something that may not even be considered in Europe or the United States may work