An American icon in China

Translating a brand – even one of the world's most ubiquitous – requires more than just language skills

Shanghai. 26 degrees and an unusually blue sky in September: Ronald McDonald was performing on stage with friends Grimace, Birdie and Hamburglar at McDonald’s annual McHappy Day Run. A Chinese boy of six demanded, “Who is he? Why can’t I see his face?!”

We explained that Ronald is our chief happiness officer and he is a clown. “That’s impossible! What is a clown?” Our young friend was confused but determined to see Ronald’s face.

Such impudent curiosity towards western symbols is not unusual in China. For the record, Ronald is simply a clown, he is not a mascot. Even after 25 years of our first restaurant in China, the need to explain to Chinese consumers everything from our Big Mac to our business model is more pertinent than ever as the company opens more restaurants. China is the third largest market in McDonald’s in restaurant units, but even at 2,200 restaurants we are only 15 per cent of the US market.

In 1990, when McDonald’s opened in Shenzhen, it was enough to be western and present. We made western culture accessible through the novelty of burgers, fries, milk shakes and self-service. Today, seven out of 10 Chinese recognise the golden arches. That’s nearly a billion people or three times the size of the US population. However, competition has leveled China’s playing field and an urbanised, tech-savvy post-90s generation has its own view of cool.

In customer focus groups and surveys, there is no ambiguity in responses that McDonald’s sells hamburgers and fries and that it is a place where parents buy Happy Meals, ice cream cones and nuggets for their children. However beyond that, you’d be hard pressed to find these respondents name the Big Mac or the Apple Pie.

Five ways to cut through cross-culture communications

Despite decades of globalisation, I still witness callous assumptions and generalisations of local operating environments. Truth be told, it is not just a cultural issue, it is philosophical and political. As China accelerates its reforms and applies its rule of law, foreign companies must be ultra-sensitive to the way they position everything.

From a communications perspective, when we translate anything from English not only do we lose language but we also lose true intent and corporate culture. The reverse can be worse

"When we translate anything from English not only do we lose language but we also lose true intent and corporate culture. The reverse can be worse."

Apart from language and concepts, China’s media environment itself is politically and operationally challenging. China has some 17,000 print, radio and television media outlets hardwired by firewalls and censorships. On top of that, it is very fragmented with a lot of inefficiencies in advertising buys which makes promotion campaigns in China complex and expensive.

This is a key reason that drives companies to turn to word-of-mouth marketing in this country. After all, for every Facebook, YouTube, Instagram or Twitter that is blocked, the same-but-different versions are available in China. With thousands of media and social platforms, content is the emperor; and the mastery of this phenomenal landscape with its connectors, pundits and influencers is critical. While each industry will have its own unique communication strategy, I suggest they could incorporate the following five areas:

1. Use social media to unlock brand culture

Social media is exploding in China. The number of users across China’s top 10 social media platforms is a staggering four billion. 70 per cent of Chinese social media users are under the age of 35 and they spend more than 90 minutes per day on social networks. More than 60 per cent of rural digital consumers are on e-commerce, just as active as urbanites in China. At first glance, social media may appear complex in China but there's no need to be fazed.

The average Chinese female netizen uses a variety of social media platforms: typically, she has a microblog and three to four messaging apps and has multi apps from shopping to video streaming. In her world, the bricks and mortar of shops are irrelevant. Whether it is Zara or adidas, she is browsing virtual shop fronts on, one of China’s most popular businesses to consumer e-commerce websites.

It is no wonder that despite China’s recent economic softness, retail sales still grew 10.4 per cent in August 2015; and e-commerce grew at twice that rate. You could say that Chinese consumers are living online. In 2012, McDonald’s China took its delivery service online and in 2013, we launched a mobile delivery app. Our online traffic is growing at double-digit percentage points and to grow beyond our current delivery capacity, we now have to expand to third-party food delivery platforms.

With this phenomenal digital traffic, it is no surprise that we are allocating more than two-thirds of our communications budget to social content strategies covering anything from listening to analytics; from asset creation to brand publishing.

Given consumers’ online frequency and volume, the pay-off from social media strategies is rewarding in China. Increasingly, marketers are shifting away from expensive cable television networks because social media platforms are allowing us to cut through traditional boundaries. More importantly technology has enabled brand storytelling. The result is a rich media platform with powerful content that reduces cross-cultural misinterpretation and ultimately creates intimacy and trust for the brand.

In 2012, an official Weibo (China’s top microblog) response to an undercover television report on China’s Consumer Rights Day was shared by 8,400 different key accounts and reached over 10 million people on Weibo in two hours. In 2015, an International Pi(e) Day activation on March 14 garnered us 250,000 new followers on our official Wechat account (China’s largest messaging app) over a single weekend. The following year, we re-launched the Big Mac in China using social media to familiarise netizens with the history of the Big Mac and teach them the Big Mac chant. The three-week social media focus connected Chinese to Big Mac fans in other parts of the world doing the chant. Never mind three times the number of Big Macs sold - we unlocked brand culture.

2. Made in China for China

Even when Chinese consumers follow the same online decision-making pattern as our peers elsewhere, there are basic differences which limit global content asset-sharing and deployment. In fact, we may sometimes feel exiled from global content. Therefore re-creation is needed.

In a recent global social media campaign, McDonald’s created a set of digital assets for Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. Every market would draw from this social media bank. Every market, except China. Translations aside, while others leverage a global YouTube channel, we had to recreate an entire sub-site for China’s separate networks. The ability to be part of a wider global campaign was triple the workload for us.

Many foreign brands already have presence on Chinese social media networks but they usually find it difficult to deploy globally-created brand assets in very meaningful ways. Communication practitioners in China need to overcome language, censorship and most of all, we have to overcome content relevance.


Online, McDonald’s content in China, while staying true to brand values, is made in China for China. Generally speaking, this content is divided into what we want to push and there is content that responds to social hot topics and trends in China. Over the past three years, through social listening and analysis, we have collected a large database of McDonald’s enthusiasts comprising top Chinese bloggers, key influencers and digital artists who are actively generating content. In September, we discovered an artist who proactively created nine digital postcards complete with sonnets showing Chinese traditional characters enjoying McDonald’s. When we approached him, he gave us full usage rights to his drawings at no charge.

Our communication strategies can only be as strong as our business strategies. In this aspect, the business integrates locally and stays relevant to what Chinese consumers expect. Visiting executives may be surprised that our menu board does not feature the classic beef varieties. Indeed, McDonald’s top-selling item in China is the McSpicy Chicken Burger and the Premium Grilled Chicken Sandwich. We sell six times more chicken than beef; and our top selling pie is taro, not apple. Quite the reverse for the brand in Europe or US.

3. Attitude – how would Confucius position this?

With 2,200 restaurants in China, McDonald’s definitely has its fair share of issues and crises in this market. No matter how strong our messaging can be in English to protect the brand, successful crisis management in China can always be drilled down to attitude. It feels like an obvious truth but it requires stating. Sometimes I quip with my team, “how would Confucius position this?”

Communication practitioners in China would struggle to agree with their global colleagues on the phrases or words used during issues or crisis management. In China, messaging during a crisis must first reflect depth of sincerity and intention. The Chinese have laser-sharp senses when it comes to attitudinal truths and authenticity. It is a result of their heritage and inherent in the Chinese language. 

"The Chinesehave laser-sharp senses when it comes to attitudinal truths and authenticity. It is a result of their heritage and inherent in the Chinese language."

I have unfortunately witnessed inexcusable attitudes of foreign companies that have dug themselves deeper into crisis and I have seen companies recover brand trust using a relationship-focused logical approach to crisis management. In a training session on how we should prepare for a dawn raid in China, one of the key principles shared was “attitude” and an offer of tea to the inspector as an important act of attitude and humility. This is counterintuitive but the effort is important.

The second part of attitude is respect. The Chinese can smell a mile away when they are being patronised. Language, tone, graphics, product names… be very sensitive to Chinese sensitivities.

On the 2013 World Consumer Rights Day, China’s official broadcaster, CCTV, attacked Apple’s customer policies and practices. The broadcaster said it treated Chinese as second-class citizens. For McDonald’s, we are often asked if our Big Mac is smaller in China. For the record, it is not. However, there is always suspicion that versions of what is served in China are inferior to what’s sold overseas.

4. Help consumers appreciate the brand

Outside of Shanghai’s city centre, a McDonald’s crew is handing out leaflets with instructions on how to use the Drive-Thru. In China it is necessary to show and tell the concept of a Drive Thru not only to customers but also to landlords and government officers granting operating licenses. While it is ubiquitous in the US, with a 70 per cent Drive-Thru ratio, only one in 10 restaurants in China have them.

As connected as Chinese consumers are in a sea of websites and mobile apps, an understanding of the history behind western brands may not exist. As much heritage as McDonald’s may have with stories of Ray Kroc and more, that was not the natural starting point in our communication initiatives. In my opinion, it’s a big miss.

Communications play the role as an accessory to business and profits, but in China it has an even bigger role in connecting Chinese consumers to a foreign brand’s heritage. Without the knowledge of what our brand stands for, trust becomes difficult to build. If retailers forget this in the course of rapid growth and development in China, the business could easily be a house of cards when a crisis hits. 

5. Reinvent your team

A month ago, I was given a template which asked me to define the percentage of time spent on different things in the communications function. It was hardwired to specific tasks like media relations, event management, internal communications and corporate social repsonsibility. I found it a challenge to complete because, you see, that’s not entirely how our communication team works these days.

Over the past 12 months, I have actually reinvented my team structure twice. Today, our team members work more like channel managers and content creators. They take a piece of news or an event and think about how they want to tell a story and share it. They can use owned, earned or paid media, or even use an event. There is no siloed vertical structures to their job scopes; rather, the way they work reflects the nature of China’s fluid social media environment.

That said, this will require change and maybe a different kind of talent, the kind of talent which can also produce and direct content, not just write press releases. Such caliber and quality of talent can be few and far between in China but I encourage companies to take bets on the post 90s generation in modern China.

Image: Wikicommons

Jessica Lee

Jessica Lee is chief communications and corporate affairs officer at McDonald’s China. In July 2013, Jessica moved to Shanghai from McDonald’s Asia Pacific region to lead the communications and corporate affairs function for its China division. Prior to joining McDonald’s, Jessica was director of branding and communications at the Asia-Pacific office of insurance company Aviva from 2004 to 2007, as senior manager corporate affairs for Standard Chartered Bank (2001 to 2004), and director corporate communications at ESPN Star Sports (1998 to 2001).