How big companies have expanded to satisfy international tastes

Expanding your existing business to new territories is an exciting opportunity, but it’s important to remember that other countries and cultures have different needs and expectations. Fully understanding the target environment is key to getting the most from your expansion, and offering the locals what they really want.

Many multinational companies have found success by adapting their products and services for different markets – the process sometimes referred to as “glocalisation” (a portmanteau of “globalisation” and “localisation”). In this post, we’re going to look at some ways the world’s largest global consumer businesses have tailored their offerings to capitalise on local sensibilities.

Adapting fast food to international tastes

In the UK, we sometimes think of McDonald’s as representing ‘culinary homogeneity’, with many of us associating the brand with being able to go into a restaurant anywhere in the world and be assured of an unsurprising meal. In reality, the burger giant has done an enormous amount of research to tailor its food to different locations.

The fact that McDonald’s has expanded to India perhaps doesn’t sound especially remarkable – until we remember that in many parts of the predominantly Hindu country, it is both illegal and sacreligious to eat beef. You might think that this would present a major stumbling block to a company whose principle offering is beefburgers, but instead McDonald’s in India successfully offers mostly spiced vegetable and chicken alternatives, such as the McAloo Tikki (a burger patty made of spiced potatoes and peas), the Chicken Maharaja Mac, and rice bowls.

McDonald's Menu, Bangalore
A McDonald’s menu in Bangalore, India.
Image by Charles Haynes (licensed under Creative Commons 2.0)

It doesn’t end with India; just about every international McDonald’s operation has had its menu adjusted to suit the locals. In Israel, the Big Mac was presented without cheese in order to offer a product in line with the kosher requirement that meat and dairy not be cooked or eaten together; elsewhere, the fast food giant has developed halal offerings to satisfy Muslim markets. Even in locations without specific religious or legal hamburger requirements, McDonald’s has fine-tuned its menu to suit the tastes of the target population, offering a bratwurst sandwich in Germany, Ovaltine McFlurrys in Brazil and a mashed potato burger in China.

The process of food industry glocalisation is by no means unique to McDonald’s. Domino’s Pizza offers keema do pyaaza (lamb and onions) pizza in India, Dunkin’ Donuts offers red bean and rice donuts in South Korea, and KFC offers rice porridge on its Chinese breakfast menu.

Rebranding cars for international markets

The issue of regional tastes isn’t restricted to food and drink. Car manufacturers, especially those in Asia, have found it necessary to rethink their approach to sell their vehicles in different countries, as Japanese and Chinese automobile naming conventions have led to vehicles with absurd English names. Famous examples include the Mitsubishi Lettuce, the Isuzu Mysterious Utility Wizard, the Geely King Kong and the majestically odd Honda That’s.

Honda That's
Licensed under Creative Commons 1.0 Public Domain.

The Japanese in particular have historically tended to buy cars with friendly, affectionate, or feminine names – such as the Mazda Carol Me Lady – which has necessitated a change of tactics when attempting to export them to the Western world. The Datsun Fairlady was thought to have too “soft” a name for the US market, and was ultimately released in America as the Datsun Roadster, in line with the Western appetite for cars with masculine, adventurous, or “cool” names (e.g. the Ford Mustang, the Buick Roadmaster, or the Dodge Magnum). In this case, nothing has been changed about the car itself – the issue has been one of branding.

Roadblocks to glocalisation

The process of tailoring products and services to different countries doesn’t always go smoothly, however. Starbucks reported in 2012 that they were experiencing ongoing problems with bringing their coffee to France – not necessarily because of the coffee itself, but because of differences in French café culture. Much of Starbucks’ business model hinges on a majority of customers ordering coffee ‘to go’ and leaving with it in a takeaway cup, but French consumers generally seemed to prefer to stay. As a result, the coffee giant had to invest in expanded seating space at many of its locations.

Starbucks also encountered resistance when they attempted to open an outlet in China’s Forbidden City. Initially the palace management were very receptive to the opening of the café within the walls, but faced with growing public discontent about the perceived encroachment of Western capitalism on a historic Chinese site, they eventually reconsidered and asked Starbucks to withdraw.

Despite this, Starbucks has enjoyed huge success elsewhere in China, referring to the country as their “second home” after the US. Additionally, statistics from 2015 showed that the corporation owned a staggering 22,557 branches globally – 17,000 more than their closest competitor. Sensitivity to the local culture can be a very important consideration when expanding to a new location, but even with the occasional hiccup, Starbucks have successfully managed to bring their products to over 70 countries.

Fashion trends around the world

Ireland-based budget clothing chain Primark have found that demand for different styles of garments can vary enormously between locations, reporting that where British customers tend to prefer subdued, understated attire, some other cultures respond better to brightly saturated colours. When the company announced their first foray into continental expansion in 2006, it set its sights on Spain, claiming that Spanish and Irish consumers had similar appetites for bold, cheerful colours. It proved to be a successful strategy; today, there are more Primark stores in Spain than in Ireland, with 128 in total across continental Europe.

Many European locations are renowned for having specific attitudes to fashion. Berlin is well-known for celebrating personal eccentricity, with style experts using words such as “unconventional” and “edgy”; Milan, on the other hand, is the home of smartly fitted, elegant clothing, with scarves worn often on a unisex basis and trainers seen as something of a fashion faux pas. Swedish shoppers meanwhile are known to favour a minimalist look, with unobtrusive shades of black and grey. Expanding a fashion business to these locations then means learning the local tastes, and developing products that the residents will wear with pride.

The message is clear: good market research conducted during the planning stage of an international business expansion is extremely important, along with careful consideration of the advantages and disadvantages. A one-size-fits-all expansion model can work, but listening to the locals in your new location – and targeting your products and services to their specific needs – can provide a huge boost to your success.