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Going Local With A Global Brand

by Bill McCool on 02/07/2019 | 5 Minute Read

When McDonald’s opened their first restaurant in Moscow back in 1990, it was a global phenomenon. It was the Andre the Giant of Mcdonald’s at the time, a 900-seat behemoth with 600 employees. On the first day, they expected to serve about 1,000 customers; instead, 30,000 people showed up with a line that wrapped around Pushkinskaya Square. This was manifest destiny McDonald’s-style. Gone was the Russia of Tolstoy and Lenin—this was the pure, uncut infiltration of capitalism.

Today, McDonald’s operates over 36,000 restaurants throughout the world. You expect to see the golden arches damn near everywhere.

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Shockingly, McDonald’s didn't land in Vietnam until 2014, and it was a decade-long journey for the popular chain to arrive. When American-Vietnamese entrepreneur and venture capitalist Henry Nguyen finally secured the deal to bring the chain over, he enlisted the help of Vietnamese branding agency Rice Creative. They would create the commemorative identity for McDonald’s and would mark the occasion by creating limited edition memorabilia, pins and posters and shirts— basically, all the fun swag you’d expect after waiting in line just to get your first taste of a Big Mac.

But Rice also needed to establish the brand’s presence.

There are challenges when introducing a global brand to a whole new country of consumers, even one with a population of 95 million and an emergent middle class. Sure, they probably knew McDonald’s, but had they ever experienced it firsthand? It was a historically significant event for the country, but they still had to consider how those restaurants would inhabit their communities.

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“We had witnessed other large multi-nationals land in Vietnam with very little consideration of, well, Vietnam,” says Rice co-founder Joshua Breidenbach. “For an international giant to pop up, as it would anywhere, and expect to get floods of people in the door isn’t very responsible; moreover it isn’t very sustainable, business-wise. We knew we could help McDonald’s arrive the way they wanted in connecting with people thoughtfully and considerately.”

They did this by giving the global brand a local feel. Obviously, they would get to play with the brand’s iconic colors and logo while digging into their classic menu, but this was also a brand that wanted to interact with Vietnam. And that meant giving it a recognizable face. “They are actually restaurants that can be centers of their respective communities,” Joshua says. “McDonald’s isn’t just another choice to eat or spend time. We began by seeing the restaurants as landmarks, and more deeply, places where people connected.”

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Their strategy relied upon drawing out some of the unique characteristics of every neighborhood.

“Each neighborhood has its name: Da Kao, Bến Thành, Gò Vấp, etc.,” Joshua says. “The names hold an identity of their own, but we believed a big brand like McDonald’s should further encourage that each neighborhood is special, and by them simply calling the neighborhoods out, they could empower neighborhood pride. We developed a logotype for each neighborhood name that would work with the brand.”

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“This process began with the McDonald’s typeface,” he adds. “We took liberties in typesetting, especially when integrating the Vietnamese diacritics. A common sight in Vietnam is big bold numbers roughly stamped or stenciled onto city walls. This comes from small local businesses that post up their information in a graffiti-like manner. The visual noise has become part of the aesthetic of Vietnamese urban centers. We brought this aesthetic into location logos, as well as fresh depictions of the iconic McDonald’s menu items. We made dozens of stamps, hundreds of inked impressions, and chose the ones with the most character for the final designs.”

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Of course, it hasn’t been an easy journey for the storied brand. Since 2014, they have only opened 17 locations in Vietnam, and they have yet to find their footing in the country.partly because of the price point and the prevalence of street vendors.

And McDonald’s is hardly alone. KFC was one of the first QSRs to open stores in Vietnam back in 1997. While immensely successful in other Asian countries like Japan (it’s now a Christmas tradition there), they only managed to open ten restaurants in seven years. However, they found more success once they updated their menu to reflect some of the local flavors with staples like their shrimp burger or chicken rice. Today, there are over 100 KFCs in Vietnam.

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“It was never anyone’s belief or intention that Big Macs would replace Bánh mì or that a Sausage McMuffin would replace Phổ,” Joshua says. “But as Vietnam continues its steep upward trajectory, diversity of choice is what consumers want. Lack of familiarity is what makes McDonald’s such a compelling prospect in Vietnam in the long-term.

“Fast food is a different experience in Vietnam,” he adds. “It’s a foreign treat, not an everyday option, or a convenient plan b."

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Part of bridging that gap is introducing food that reflects Vietnamese cuisine with menu items like the grilled pork rice with egg. Additionally, if schlepping down to the local McDonald’s is more of a rare treat, then you need to create a premium experience around that, particularly if it’s more expensive than the vendor outside selling Bún chả.

But that’s the curve here. It’s no easy feat to introduce a global brand to someone who’s never even tried an Egg McMuffin, but by creating a community identity, one that feels recognizable and welcoming can bridge the gap to the unknown. In essence, you’re creating a landmark, one with distinctive qualities that can speak to your burger hamlet.

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McDonald’s hasn’t indicated that they’ll fade the Vietnamese market anytime soon and they’ll continue to open new restaurants with the localized approach helmed by Rice. Breaking new ground in a young market is a long game, and one that Nguyen has even admitted will likely take decades. But if a fast food chain like KFC can stick it out amongst a consumer class that continues to exponentially rise while making inroads with communities by making a QSR an actual destination or experience, then they can win over the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese.

And while we wouldn’t put it past McDonald’s to introduce a Mc-Bánh mì this year, there’s always the cult of the McRib.

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