A cultural deep fry

The pliability of culture

Naomi Teng

Society and culture | Asia, East Asia

5 April 2017

How do fast food giants like McDonalds and Starbucks become popular in Asia? Do they tailor themselves to suit the culinary cultures of the home country, or is the spread of fast food globalisation threatening their distinct flavours? Naomi Teng writes this piece.   

Culture is boundless. It is the acquired lens through which everyone sees the world uniquely, and yet it unites people. The ongoing process of globalisation however, has seen many countries, particularly those in the Asia Pacific, swept by Western traditions, mass media and large transnational corporations. Money, technology and services move ever more swiftly across state borders.

When you have the luxury to travel and explore other countries, culture is something you look for. You try out new foods, embark on tours led by locals or learn about the history and traditions of the land. But most developed and developing countries are now surrounded by large multinational corporations such as McDonalds, Apple and Starbucks.


McDonald’s in Osaka is one example of the movement of McDonaldization illustrating cultural homogenisation

Every time you stroll into one of the 33,000 McDonalds franchises and buy that 6 pack of nuggets, you are a part of a cultural experiment. The same box, containing the same golden nuggets, made of the same ingredients is a global meal. McDonalds dominates Asia with 2,956 operating stores in Japan, over 2,000 stores in China and approximately 405 stores in Taiwan. McDonalds perpetuates cultural homogenisation, resulting in a loss of diversity and a unified world culture.


A McDonald’s located beneath Xi’an’s Drum Tower, a historic symbol of the city, representing just one of approximately 405 stores in China

This is not to say that cultural identity has been lost. The shrinking of both time and space has also allowed fruitful interactions to develop between many different cultures.

Culture is a complex arrangement of morals, values, religion, language and habits created by people in a society. The homogenisation of culture cannot simply be attributed to people using similar types of consumer goods because culture is ever changing and deeply embedded in society. Indeed, it can be said that culture influences globalisation just as much as globalisation influences culture.

One example of this is Starbucks. Starbucks has been perceptive to vast cultural differences in the Chinese market. This coffee chain grew from a single outlet in Seattle to approximately 24,000 stores in 70 counties.


One Starkbucks location in China utilising traditional store design as a localisation strategy

Starbucks localises its products. Examples include green tea lattes, red bean scones and mooncake, which are a sweet success. To cater for the local taste, stores in China also have larger seating areas as customers prefer to enjoy their coffee seated rather than on the go. In regions with rich local culture, such as Chongqing, which is known for its spicy food, Starbucks serves a spiced-up chili mocha.

Starbucks’ localisation strategies in China have been a success. The company now dominates 60 per cent of the Chinese coffee market. This is shown through the increasing net revenues of the China-Asia Pacific region which increased by 18 per cent from the third quartile in 2015 to $768.2 million in the third quartile of 2016. The CEO and Chairman of Starbucks, Howard Schultz stated that, “we remain highly respectful of the culture and traditions of the countries in which we do business. We recognise that our success is not an entitlement, and we must continue to earn the trust and respect of customers every day.”

Starbucks is one of the few multinational companies that is culturally aware. Shalmali Guttal, the Senior Associate with Focus on the Global South argues that globalisation homogenises consumer tastes, grows ubiquity of liberal democratic ideas and creates a ‘McDonaldisation’ of both food and culture. This stigma is not entirely correct. People make culture, culture makes people.

People have the ability to sift through influences and choose to reject or accept them. Many people define their identity based on culture. Globalisation is unlikely to form one cultural globe with the same values, beliefs and religion. Rather, culture is being diversified, assisted mainly by technology and mass media. Humans have the capacity to use culture and globalisation to increase global cultural intelligence. As the process of modernisation continues, the evolution of culture develops.

In the words of Appadurai, “Globalisation is not the story of cultural homogenisation”.

This just means that you’ll always find a fresh 6 pack of nuggets no matter where your cravings are.

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  1. Steve sing says:

    Well done Naomi, good research and great piece of literature i was unaware the extend of fast food chain like MacDonald and Starbucks have such a impact in Asia society.

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