Cheap Burgers Are No Laughing Matter: McD's and The Impact of Cultural Differences in Outsourced Marketing Campaigns

Maria Antonietta Marino Date: 2019-10-07

According to Statista [1], in 2018, the global outsourcing market amounted to 85.6 billion U.S. dollars: 84.2% of outsourcing deals originated from the US [2], while the top outsourced destinations based on “financial attractiveness, people skills, availability, and business environment scores” are either Asian or Latin-American countries [3]: while outsourcing can provide a wide range of benefits, failure to acknowledge and efficiently manage the fundamental cultural differences between the parties involved and their impact on communication, personal interactions, productivity, power dynamics, time management, etc, might turn any offshore outsourcing project into a costly fiasco.

Members of a certain group are most likely to follow their own beliefs and resort to familiar thinking and acting strategies than they are to embrace foreign values: in order for any organization to succeed in an increasingly globalized workplace, cultural awareness is a vital requirement.

How can mutual understanding occur between parties who walk into a business agreement with opposite attitudes, conflicting priorities and different expectations? What are those differences that can make or break a global project, and what can companies do to ensure they are properly addressed?

Around 70% of the world cultures are estimated to be “high-context” [4], a definition anthropologist E.T. Hall coined to describe those cultures characterised by implicit communication and heavy reliance on context [5], while the US society - together with most English-, German speaking and Scandinavian countries - is typically “low-context” in a business related scenario. High-context cultures tend to be traditional, high in stability and low in innovation (characterized by strong social boundaries and “in-group” mentality that differentiates between insiders and outsiders, they don’t readily embrace change), knowledge of “unwritten” rules and social codes is not necessarily conscious and tends to be assumed, business relationships are based on trust rather than mutual convenience and develop gradually.

In low-context cultures, on the other hand, communication tends to be mostly verbal and explicit, information is ideally accessible to anyone, relationships are mainly of practical and somewhat utilitarian nature (business and social relationships don’t necessarily overlap), efficiency and minimal waste of resources are a priority (time and money are treated as precious and limited commodities).

What happens when seemingly innocent misunderstandings occur between members of these two sub-groups? When important decisions and choices are outsourced to parties whose cultural values and beliefs may not be fully aligned with those shared by the majority of stakeholders, or when the extent and the impact of such differences are either unacknowledged or underestimated?

Notable examples of such scenarios are, among others, two controversial ads targeting McDonald’s Chinese customers (intended as residents of mainland China).

In December 2018, McDonald’s faced harsh criticism after a commercial showing a Taiwanese identity card aired in China: social media users voiced their disappointment over McD’s perceived attempt to support and advocate independence for Taiwan - viewed by Beijing as a province - and called for a boycott of the popular chain, even suggesting that it should be expelled from China [6]. The video - that aired on Dec. 6 and was withdrawn twelve days later - prompted McDonald’s China to release an apology on Weibo (the country’s largest micro-blogging site), claiming that the ad was directed by a Taiwanese agency, admitting that failure to carry an appropriate background check on the film led to the regrettable misunderstanding, and reassuring customers that the company supported China’s sovereignty. In January 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged multinational companies to stop interfering in China’s domestic politics during a speech that commemorated the 40th anniversary of the “Message of Compatriots in Taiwan” on Jan. 1, 1979 [7].

This recent blunder was preceded by another campaign created by advertising agency Leo Burnett, that aired in 2005 and shown a middle-aged man kneeling and begging for a discount (the man's coupon for a video store had expired and the vendor turned him down: the message the ad poorly attempted to convey was that people did not have to beg to take advantage of a McDonald's promotion, available all year round).

“Customer: Just one more week, one week…[Owner shakes his head]. Three days' time. Just three days, okay?
Owner: How many times have I told you! Our discount period is over.
Customer: Sir, please, I'm begging you! [kneels and grabs at the owner's trouser legs]
Voice-over: Luckily McDonald's understands the pain I feel when I miss an opportunity, and it gives me 365 days of discounts.”

At the time, Marina Leung - the senior director for corporate relations at McDonald's China Development Co. in Hong Kong, that supervised the Chinese mainland market - explained that the ad was simply trying to attract customers through the use of a humorous approach [8], but viewers failed to be amused: in Chinese culture kneeling and begging are considered acts of humiliation and indignity, therefore the commercial felt insulting to customers based in the mainland, strongly attached to traditional values not necessarily shared by the more Westernised residents of multicultural Hong Kong.

The China Advertising Association reportedly asked McDonald's to cut the kneeling during the inspection procedure, but the request was ignored. As a result, the commercial was withdrawn shortly after it first aired [9].

To bring it all together, every decision affecting the customer experience is critical and might pose some risks if outsourced to the wrong provider or if the organization loses control over the process: values and standards of a third party cannot be assumed and, if such party is not able to meet customers’ expectations, the relationship between the company and its clients may suffer as a result.



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