I don’t eat fast food that often. but on the rarest occasion that I do go to McDonalds (it’s almost unavoidable on a road trip), I order my usual Number 1: A medium-sized Big Mac Meal. I have been to McDonalds in America, France and London, and a Number 1 was pretty much universal to me. The menus across the three countries, while a little different in branding, pretty much remained the same.
And then I stepped into a McDonalds in Mumbai where a Number 1 was most certainly not a Big Mac. “We don’t serve Big Macs here.” I was told. My eyes scanned the menu overhead. Mc Aloo Tikka. McVeggie. McSpicy Paneer. McEgg. Spicy Masala Chicken. But no Big Mac. In fact the only thing that resembled or sounded like anything I’d seen elsewhere was their Filet-o-fish and theirMcChicken. Everything else was foreign.
Foreign to ME. But not at all to its most frequent customers.
While my disappointment may have been wildly unparalleled, McDonald’s success in India is precisely because of the extensive cultural adaptation it has employed in its menu options. In a country of which 80% of the population is Hindu and does not eat beef (goodbye Quarterpounder) and another 15% of the population is Muslim and does not eat pork (goodbye McRib), McDonald’s could never even begin to hope to be successful with its traditional strategy of offering a menu that is 70% original and 30% local. Cultural adaptation was and always will be crucial to its success in India. Aside from its menu offerings, McDonalds also adapted culturally in terms of its target population. While in the US McDonalds is a fast food chain that primary targets young children, in India, advertising and marketing is geared more towards young adults who, for the foreseeable future, will represent the largest demographic of the Indian population.
Mattel is following suit when it comes to cultural adaptation and Barbie. The original Barbie – tall, slim, white, and clad in the latest Western fashions – has never proved to be a hit when it comes to the Indian market – or any other for that matter. With more and more awareness about diversity and body positivity, Mattel has made a big push this year to diversify its offerings beyond simply throwing a sari over a barely-darker-skinned version of Barbie who still maintains what are already impossible to attain Caucasian female features. Indian Barbie now comes in all shapes, heights, sizes, professions and religions. This is a huge move from their pre-1996 version of the India Barbie that featured a monkey, passport stickers and a brush, and informed children that she only ate with her hands. There is still some debate over the hyper-sexualization of Barbie, and her on-again-off-again relationship with Ken and how it does not conform with traditional Indian culture, but at least Mattel is headed down the right road.
Here’s my opinion on cultural adaptation with regards to my own experience of being African and Black and American: I think that at some point in our recent history the world was becoming more and more similar as globalization began to take effect and the world got proverbially smaller. While cultural adaptation was still very much relevant, companies could get away with introducing their own culture in a new region because it was fresh, hip and people wanted something different. People across the world wanted to be more Westernized because the Western life was something out of reach and something to aspire to. I believe we are reaching a turning point where people are still looking for variety and to see something different, but the difference they want to see is themselves – their cultures and beliefs and preferences – reflected in what others are offering them. Cultural adaptation is a necessity. It’s why we are seeing TV shows and commercial casts that are more diverse in terms of sexuality and race. It’s why McDonalds India is offering me a variety of paneer options instead of the unhealthy red meat I sometimes crave. And its why as we move into the future traditional companies will begin to look less and less traditional and more and more like the communities they serve.
That being said, Dominos Nigeria serving a pizza with a local rice dish on it might be taking adaptation a little too far lol.