Cultural difference food forethought

The spectrum of cultural difference has always presented a challenge for international food franchisors. A meal that may excite millions in Mozambique could be utterly undesirable in Uruguay. Gareth Samuel investigates how franchising food giants understand the consumer habits of different cultures to break into foreign markets.

As the French enjoy a cold can of lager with their Big Mac, on the other side of the world, Brazilians visit their local McDonald’s franchise for a slice of banana pie. McDonald’s is a prime example of an international organisation taking steps to understand the demands of culturally different consumers.

In September 2012, the fast-food giant made positive headlines by responding to the religious and nutritional traditions of Hindu customers in India by opening their first ever fully vegetarian outlet in Amritsar, Northern India.

Company spokesman, Rajesh Kumar Maini, said at the time: “There is a big opportunity for vegetarian restaurants as many Indians are vegetarian.” By conducting research and listening to the demands of a new market, rather than trying to alter traditions, a franchise is likely to forge a better relationship with its potential customers.

This simple process of reacting to new surroundings paid off for McDonald’s, who now have more than 300 restaurants (most non-vegetarian) across India and a more appealing public profile. Other international food franchises have also made appropriate alterations to the services that they provide to appeal to a new and untested market.

Subway, currently the largest international franchising corporation in the world, has locations in more than 50 countries. The secret to their success, according to company spokesperson Les Winograd, is their commitment to putting the requirements of their customers first. Les says: “We remain focused on listening to, and serving all of our customers. We are committed to being better, not just bigger.”

Subway utilised extensive research on different cultures to offer different services in countries where traditions could clash with the US business model. In China, where it is unusual to eat with bare hands, they offered a salad bowl. They also expanded into the Indian markets by offering variations on lamb, chicken and fish sandwiches, in keeping with local culinary customs.

For a franchisor looking to expand internationally, it can be difficult getting to grips with country-specific traditions. One expert, Edward Hall, writes in his book Understanding Cultural Difference, that the demands of a new audience is best learned by observing situational behaviour. He gives the example: “if a subordinate performs poorly in the United States, a good American manager will find something to praise, before criticising the worker in question. “A good German manager will address the problem directly. Praise coupled with criticism only serves to confuse most German employees.”

Analysing culture-specific behaviour can give a franchise looking to invest overseas a comprehensive understanding of how potential consumers are likely to react to a particular product or service. As well as international cultural differences, food franchises throughout the UK have had to adapt to the differences in consumer demands across the country. In London, for example, there are far more Subway restaurants serving halal meats in their sandwiches than elsewhere in Britain, to suit a more ethnically diverse population, with more varied dietary needs. Western businesses have often overlooked cultural traditions in the past to their detriment. By entering into a new market without making sufficient changes to their business model, franchisors risk provoking a negative reaction from consumers and governments.

Kathleen McLaughlin is the Beijing correspondent for the Global Post. She believes that China, one of the world’s fastest growing economies, has absorbed so much western culture, that the Government is beginning to take serious action to retain 1,000-year-old traditions. She writes in an article for the Global Post: “Western culture swept into China when the country opened to foreign trade 30 years ago. Now KFC is the country’s most popular restaurant. A Buick is the most sold car. “Now the Government is pushing back. President Hu Jintao says hostile Western forces are infiltrating China’s culture and the Government has set new limits on Chinese mass media.” As western influence in China grows, future Government sanctions are likely to affect food franchises that have not made certifiable attempts to fit in with local traditions.

By listening to consumers and taking action to adjust to the religious and customary demands of a new audience, a business can successfully integrate itself into an entirely new culture, without forcing an alien ideal onto a new market. After all, it’s the little differences that enrich us when we travel.