For quite some time now, there has been a visibly growing fascination with the West in China. It is especially evident amongst the younger generation that incorporates Western fashion, lifestyle, and cuisine into their everyday life. The well-known fast-food chain McDonald’s is one of those Western brands that has managed to enter the Chinese market successfully. In fact, McDonald’s is currently one of the most popular fast-food chains in this country. Therefore, it might be interesting to see how McDonald’s in China has evolved over the years, as well as how the Western brand managed to maintain its popularity over time.
McDonald’s in China – history
The early years of McDonald’s in China
The first McDonald’s (also known in China as 麦当劳 – Màidāngláo) opened in Taipei in 1984, while the first restaurant in mainland China opened in 1990. Three years later, KFC opened its first restaurant in Beijing.
The first McDonald’s in mainland China opened in Shenzhen, in the southern part of the country. As the first Special Economic Zone in China was established in 1980, newly implemented liberal reforms allowed Western brands to open stores in China. McDonald’s was one of them. Two years later, the second McDonald’s restaurant in mainland China opened in Beijing and was, at that time, the largest McDonald’s restaurant in the world. On its opening day, a thousand workers served over forty thousand customers.
By 1996, McDonald’s had opened twenty-nine restaurants in Beijing alone.
McDonald’s growth in China
When McDonald’s made their first debut in the Chinese market, its target audience was middle-class Chinese citizens. At the beginning of the 21st century, McDonald’s began appealing more to a younger audience due to increased marketing and rising pop-cultural impact. The famous slogan “I’m loving it” has also made its way to China as 我就喜欢 – “I just like it.”
First McCafé in China was opened in 2001, and the first McDrive – in 2005. As McDonald’s popularity grew, all restaurants in China were open 24/7.
Due to its rapid expansion in the Chinese market, McDonald’s restaurants became an integral aspect of the Chinese cities’ landscape. To gain more patrons, McDonald’s started employing a new strategy in China. The brand reduced American symbolism in China and incorporated more menu options with a Chinese twist.
As of 2022, there are around 5,000 McDonald’s restaurants in China and 180 thousand employees. By 2017 McDonald’s had served over 1,3 billion customers, and now it serves 1 billion customers a year. In line with the popular statement 我们的一小步，世界的一大步 (“a small step for us, is a large step for the world”) McDonald’s in China is now focused on serving organic and sustainably grown food following the “green” trends in the world.
Western brands and Chinese mentality
McDonald’s popularity perfectly shows China’s mentality towards copyright laws. The famous golden arches logo, for example, has often been recreated by other local restaurants. It is indeed not surprising to come across a restaurant with that very same logo under the name “Mr. Mahmoud.”
This “copycat” mentality has been deeply ingrained into Chinese culture for centuries that can be seen across various Chinese products. On the one hand, it is an important aspect of Chinese culture that investors planning to expand their business in the Chinese market need to be aware of. On the other hand, this proves that a brand’s imagery plays a fundamental role in its popularity in China because the more a brand’s logo gets copied, the trendier it becomes.
When McDonald’s made its debut on the Chinese market, it was seen as a symbol of luxury and the Western world. Its image has changed since it appealed to both young and older Chinese consumers.
How does McDonald’s adapt to its Chinese consumers?
McDonald’s association with Western culture played a significant role in its success in China. Therefore, back when the brand first entered the Chinese market, the Chinese menu was not much different from those available in the US or Europe. However, the company took a couple of steps to appeal to Chinese customers and lower their cost of production.
McDonald’s restaurants in China offer several Chinese dishes, such as youtiao (油条, Chinese deep-fried dough) and cakes with taro filling (a kind of sweet potato). Additionally, green tea is not only used to make teas but also used in sweets and hamburger buns, which gives them a vivid green color.
Even the hamburger’s name in Chinese is an interesting case. When we take a look at the Chinese translation of the word hamburger (汉堡 – hànbǎo), the first character used can be translated as “China” or “Chinese,” which might imply a certain closeness to Chinese culture.
Various forms of promotion have been used to promote McDonald’s in China, including meal packaging inspired by Chinese video games. McDonald’s menu options in China also had to adapt to the availability of ingredients in the local market. Thus, since real cheese is expensive in China, Chinese hamburgers use cheese imitations resembling rubber. While the difference is unnoticeable according to Chinese customers, as they do not eat cheese on a regular basis, foreigners will be quick to spot the difference.
How can you grow your business in China?
What can Western exporters learn from such tactics? First, it is crucial to pay attention to China’s economic situation (which includes market conditions, prices, taxes, etc.) and its culture. Understanding Chinese culture and its people’s mentality is significant in terms of McDonald’s marketing campaigns’ success in China. Something that may not even be considered in Europe or the US may work well in China.
Check out our article about KFC’s growth in China. KFC currently has more than twice as many restaurants as its main competitor, McDonald’s. You may also compare the development of different global brands in China in our infographic.