Lost in Translation: McDonald’s Hmong and Hindu Cultural Marketing Missteps

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One way McDonald’s plans to keep on growing around the globe is to open itself increasingly to local tastes rather than simply trying to impose the Big Mac on every national market, which is how the chain started out. Interestingly, however, just as McDonald’s is making such a move in India with new vegetarian restaurants, it’s being tripped up by a matter of cultural sensitivity just a few hundred miles from McDonald’s Chicago headquarters in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

It seems that billboards in St. Paul touted McDonald’s breakfast offerings in Hmong, the indigenous language of Hmong-Americans who comprise a major enclave of 64,000 people in the Twin Cities. The billboards put up by local franchisees — the first time McDonald’s has ever advertised to Asia’s Hmong community in the U.S. — were supposed to say, “Coffee Gets You Up, Breakfast Gets You Going.”

But thanks to a garbled translation from English to Hmong, the text reads as gobbledygook to the Hmong-American population. McDonald’s apologized for the error and set about to correct it immediately. Overseas, meanwhile, McDonald’s newest culturally relevant move outside the U.S. — bringing vegetarian-only fare to some restaurants in India next year — is one of the biggest efforts by McDonald’s in accommodating its brand to consumers outside its home U.S. market, and also inadvertently stepping on some toes.[more]

McDonald’s restaurants in India already have dropped beef and pork from their menus to reflect the religious practices of Hindus and Muslims who make up most of India’s population. And the chain’s kitchens in India are divided into separate sections for cooking vegetarian and non-vegetarian food.

Now McDonald’s is taking things a step further by opening its first all-non-meat outlet, in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar near the much-visited Golden Temple. It will serve herbivore options more suited to the Indian market.

Already, the chain’s best seller in India is the McAloo Tikki burger — a fried potato patty — which is responsible for a quarter of sales.

And in accommodating the Indian consumers who love the McDonald’s brand but not its American-bred meaty fare, the chain will have even more customers who are “Lovin’ It” — even as some Hindu fundamentalists reportedly oppose the move on the grounds that it’s an attempt to “humiliate” them by a brand, however well-meaning, that still slaughters cows for those all-beef patties.

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