McDonald's Goes East

McDonald's Goes East

A Chapter by Debbie Barry

An essay about McDonald's and its food as it establishes restaurants in new markets. Written for SOC 101: Introduction to Sociology.


McDonald's Goes East



Often, when Western businesses expand into the Middle and Far East, they take Western culture with them.  Sometimes, Western culture is well received.  More often, the companies must adapt to local cultures in order to survive; those that fail to do so are often forced to withdraw from the foreign regions.

Gordon Fairclough is the co-author of two companion articles in the Wall Street Journal that discuss some of the difficulties that McDonald’s encountered when it started doing business in China, as well as some of the strategies that McDonald’s adopted to deal with doing business in China.  “Drive-Through Tips for China” (2006), co-authored by Geoffrey A. Fowler, explores McDonald’s efforts to introduce the Western “grab-and-go lifestyle” (Fairclough and Fowler, 2006, para. 8) in China.  “Dispatch: Burger time: McDonald's beefs up presence in China with Quarter Pounders, racy ads” (2006), co-authored by Janet Adamy, discusses how Western misconceptions about Chinese food preferences missed the mark, and about how McDonald’s changed its approach in China.

In “Drive-Through Tips for China” (2006), Fairclough and Fowler compare McDonald’s efforts in China with the efforts of KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken).  McDonald’s has achieved an advantage over KFC in the drive-through market because of a deal that McDonald’s made in 2006 to open drive-through locations at filling stations owned by China’s Sinopec Group.  The article identifies this deal as a response to McDonald’s falling market share in China, and to KFC’s rising market share in China for the same period.  McDonald’s is responding to the rapidly growing car culture in China, but the introduction of fast-paced food habits is taking time to catch on in a country whose people prefer “to sit down for leisurely meals” (Fairclough and Fowler, 2006, para. 8).  This difference in the pace of life between the American market and the Chinese market has been a challenge that McDonald’s has had to face in doing business in China.

In “Dispatch: Burger time: McDonald's beefs up presence in China with Quarter Pounders, racy ads” (2006), Fairclough and Adamy discuss how McDonald’s has adapted its advertising in China to promote its beef products, especially the Quarter Pounder.  The initial view of Chinese food preferences by the West has been that the Chinese prefer chicken products and products that resemble native Chinese foods.  McDonald’s has learned that beef is desired by Chinese diners, especially men, because “beef boosts energy and heightens sex appeal.  The word ‘beef’ in Chinese has connotations of manliness, strength and skill” (Fairclough and Adamy, 2006, para. 4).  McDonald’s is using this image of beef in China, and is making its ads for Quarter Pounders sexy.  McDonald’s has also discovered that its Chinese customers are embracing Western culture in their dress and electronics, and McDonald’s is becoming part of that cultural shift.

One challenge that is highlighted in these articles about McDonald’s moving into China is the misunderstanding about what the Chinese want to eat.  Western belief was that the Chinese wanted mostly chicken offerings, and that they wanted foods that tasted like Chinese foods.  McDonald’s has been known for offering “local” foods in the countries where it does business, including “a Big Mac made of lamb” (Adams, 2007, para. 4) in India, “mashed potato, cabbage and katsu sauce, all in a sandwich” (Adams, 2007, para. 7) in Japan, and “burgers … between, not burger buns, but two patties of glutinous rice” (Adams, 2007, para. 12) in Hong Kong.  In China, McDonald’s considered introducing “an Asian-style triangle-shaped wrapper filled with beef or chicken and rice” (Fairclough and Adamy, 2006, para. 3), and this approach of tailoring foods to local cultures, which has been successful in other countries, fueled by Western misconceptions about China, caused McDonald’s market share in China to drop by 1.3% from 2002 to 2004 (Fairclough and Fowler, 2006, para. 13).  As McDonald’s looked for a way to “claw its way back” (Fairclough and Fowler, 2006, para. 16), it discovered the appeal of beef for Chinese men, and it has responded to this discovery by designing racy ads to promote the Quarter Pounder in China. 

In one spot, a man and a woman eat Quarter Pounders, and close-up shots of the woman's neck and mouth are interspersed with images of fireworks and spraying water. The actors suck their fingers. The voice-over says: "You can feel it. Thicker. You can taste it. Juicier."  (Fairclough and Adamy, 2006, para. 6)

Another hurdle that the articles bring out for McDonald’s in China is that “China’s eating culture [doesn’t] mix well with American grab-and-go lifestyle” (Fairclough and Fowler, 2006, para. 8).  To help the Chinese deal with American-style drive-through restaurants, “employees were deployed in the parking lots to direct drivers to the drive-through lane … [and] customers place[d] their orders with a person, rather than through a speaker” (Fairclough and Fowler, 2006, para. 5).  China is not the only place where McDonald’s has had to make changes in how customers order food in order to fit in with the local culture.  In Kuwait, McDonald’s has had to designate a “male-only line” (Leiby, 2003, para. 1) to conform to Islamic laws.

The articles also draw attention to how the pace of life in the United States clashes with the slower, more traditional pace of life in China.  Americans are accustomed to grabbing food on the go, and to packing as much activity as possible into every day.  Fast food appeals to Americans because it provides instant gratification, and because it frees them to hurry on to the rest of their day.  The Chinese, on the other hand, “prefer to eat their meals in … restaurants, or take it home with them” (Fairclough and Fowler, 2006, para. 11).  Fairclough and Fowler (2006) report that McDonald’s is responding to China’s slower culture by “learning to slow down from its fast-paced U.S. roots” (para. 17).  McDonald’s is designing its Chinese restaurants not to maximize speed, but to “reinforce their role as gathering places” (Fairclough and Fowler, 2006, para. 17).

Unlike many Western companies, McDonald’s is becoming adept at responding and adapting to local cultures, rather than “attempt[ing] to export U.S. cultural values to another country” (Schaefer, 2009, p. 68).  Even so, McDonald’s has been hurt by the effects of Western culture invading other cultures.  In the UAE (United Arab Emirates), for example, “McDonald’s, like many other fast food chains, was hit by a boycott of western brands” (Derhally, 2003, para. 5).  McDonald’s survived the boycott in part because of its sensitivity to local cultures, and to its willingness to offer foods that appeal to local tastes.  The McArabia carried McDonald’s through the boycott.  The McArabia is “two grilled chicken patties, dressed in Arabic flatbread, and seasoned with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and garlic sauce [and] is very close to the traditional chicken shawerma or shish taouk” (Derhally, 2003, para. 3).

McDonald’s market share in China “slid to 8.7% in 2004 … from 10% in 2002” (Fairclough and Fowler, 2006, para. 13).  Similarly, “[i]n 2002 … the sale of US food … was down a staggering 25 percent” (Alkhereiji, 2003, para. 4) in Saudi Arabia.  As of 2005, China is working to “halt sliding market share and revive McDonald’s performance” (Fairclough and Adamy, 2006, para. 14) in China.

Unlike Wal-Mart, which “fail[ed] to adjust to the national culture” (Schaefer, 2009, p. 68) in Germany, McDonald’s is making adjustment and adaptation its rule for its international market.  McDonald’s menu has a chameleon-like quality, which allows it to survive and to succeed in many markets.  From burgers topped with “not ketchup " avocado paste” (Adams, 2007, para. 9) in Chile, to “the McLaks, a sandwich made of grilled salmon and dill sauce” (Adams, 2007, para. 8) in Norway, to non-Kosher “’McPitzutz’ ice creams and cheeseburgers” (Adams, 2007, para. 13) in Israel, and even to beer in Germany (Adams, 2007, para. 5), McDonald’s is embracing the cultures in which it does business, instead of trying to impose Western culture on the countries in which it operates.  McDonald’s flexibility and sensitivity to local markets should ensure its success around the globe, even as other businesses “fail to adjust to new cultures when they enter foreign markets” (Schaefer, 2009, p. 68).

McDonald’s has established itself as a success in the global marketplace because it is willing to adjust to other cultures.  This is a good model for other companies to follow when entering other countries.  Although McDonald’s may not always be a resounding success in every country, despite its willingness to adapt, it is more likely to succeed in more places than companies that are unable or unwilling to change.



Adams, B.  (2007, July 19).  McDonald’s Strange Menu Around the World.  Retrieved July         13, 2010, from       travel/mcdonald%E2%80%99s-         strange-menu-around-the-world/

Alkhereiji, M..  (2003, March 5).  “McDonald’s Launches McArabia.”  Arab News.            Retrieved July 13, 2010, from          2003

Derhally, M..  (2003, March 5).  McDonald’s rolls out McArabia.  Retrieved July 13, 2010, from

Fairclough, G. and Adamy, J..  (2006, September 21).  "Dispatch: Burger time: McDonald's beefs up presence in China with Quarter Pounders, racy ads." The Wall Street Journal          Asia, p.           32.  Retrieved July 13, 2010, from ProQuest Newsstand.

Fairclough, G. and Fowler, G.A..  (2006, June 20).  "Drive-Through Tips for China." Wall Street Journal   (Eastern Edition),  p. B.1.  Retrieved July 13, 2010, from           ABI/INFORM Global.

Leiby, R..  (2003, March 17).  “You Want Falafel With That?”  Washington Post.  Retrieved July 13, 2010, from      dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A35653-2003Mar16

Schaefer, R.T.. (2009) Sociology: A brief introduction (8th ed.) New York, NY: McGraw           Hill.

© 2017 Debbie Barry

Author's Note

Debbie Barry
Initial reactions and constructive criticism appreciated.

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Added on November 10, 2017
Last Updated on November 10, 2017
Tags: essay, sociology, mcdonalds, mcdonald's, food, culture, eastern world

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Debbie Barry
Debbie Barry

Clarkston, MI

I live with my husband in southeastern Michigan with our two cats, Mister and Goblin. We enjoy exploring history through French and Indian War re-enactment and through medieval re-enactment in the So.. more..