Cultural Paradoxes Reflected in Brand Meaning: Mcdonald=S in Shanghai China

Giana M. Eckhardt, Australian Graduate School of Management
Michael J. Houston, University of Minnesota
EXTENDED ABSTRACT - Brands are powerful symbols that reflect not only the image that manufacturers and advertising agencies try to imbue them with but also reflect the cultural milieu they are imbedded in. If that milieu is qualitatively different from that of the society where the brand originated, brands can come to represent some surprising ideas and values. In China today, ancient belief systems rooted in Confucianism and Taoism are intermingling with Western ideologies. This is especially true with regards to thoughts on consumption, consumerism and brands (Davis 2000), and no where is this melting pot of ideas more evident than in Shanghai.
[ to cite ]:
Giana M. Eckhardt and Michael J. Houston (2002) ,"Cultural Paradoxes Reflected in Brand Meaning: Mcdonald=S in Shanghai China", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 393-394.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 393-394

CULTURAL PARADOXES REFLECTED IN BRAND MEANING: McDONALD=S IN SHANGHAI CHINA

Giana M. Eckhardt, Australian Graduate School of Management

Michael J. Houston, University of Minnesota

EXTENDED ABSTRACT -

Brands are powerful symbols that reflect not only the image that manufacturers and advertising agencies try to imbue them with but also reflect the cultural milieu they are imbedded in. If that milieu is qualitatively different from that of the society where the brand originated, brands can come to represent some surprising ideas and values. In China today, ancient belief systems rooted in Confucianism and Taoism are intermingling with Western ideologies. This is especially true with regards to thoughts on consumption, consumerism and brands (Davis 2000), and no where is this melting pot of ideas more evident than in Shanghai.

There has been remarkably little work done in the marketing field as to the relationship between brand meaning and the nature of traditional culture, especially in environs where traditional culture is changing. This should be of paramount importance to marketers, as often a brand’s image comes as much from the culture surrounding it as from a marketing campaign, and thus if culture is in a state of flux brand meaning can also fluctuate.

Specifically, this study investigates the meanings the brand McDonald’s can hold for a wide range of Shanghainese consumers. For some consumers in some situations, McDonald’s can be used to uphold traditional values, while for others and in other situations, McDonald’s is an appropriate venue for consumers to explore new beliefs and ways of acting. For many of the participants in this study, McDonald’s does both, and has come to symbolize the paradoxes in modern Chinese life.

Three scenarios depicting widely divergent situations in which the protagonist is eating in McDonald’s were created to induce respondents to expand on the connection between cultural norms and how they interpret the brand McDonald’s (Greenfield 1997). The first scenario is designed to elicit thoughts relating to how McDonald’s is seen when with older family members, and how and if the brand relates to traditional Chinese eating habits. The second scenario was designed to induce respondents to articulate the meanings they attach to the McDonald’s brand with reference to romantic liaisons, another symbolically important usage situation. Finally, th premise for the third scenario is that non-social attributes of the brand such as hunger, price and taste of food are important in brand evaluation when Chinese consumers are eating alone.

Twenty-four respondents completed two scenarios each, in both written and oral form, in three groups of eight. Each session took an hour and a half, and was conducted in Mandarin. A hermeneutic analysis was conducted, and common themes and meanings were developed (Thompson 1997).

The results suggest brand meaning can be inconsistent due to the changing nature of contemporary urban Chinese society. The first theme to emerge is the paradoxical nature of social space. The divided and hierarchical set up of the dining experience in traditional Chinese restaurants is not adhered to in McDonald’sBthe seating arrangements are open, and everyone has equal access as to where to sit and what to order. This can lead to a positive or negative interpretation of the brand, depending on the context. The second way social change can be engendered through social space is the specific seating arrangements, allowing for two people only to share a table and sit together. This leads to a negative interpretation of the brand when engaging in a traditional food consumption situation, but can be interpreted positively in situations where consumers are exploring the freedoms that can come with modernity, such as dating situations.

The second theme to emerge is the fluctuating nature of foreignness in the brand. The McDonald’s brand name as a symbol of the other can stimulate social changes or reinforce traditional norms. The lack of alcohol served there leads some consumers, primarily women, to embrace being able to be on a more equal footing with men while eating. On the other hand, the lack of alcohol served there also causes people to evaluate the restaurant as inappropriate for certain occasions. Also, for a celebration, McDonald’s is largely not seen as a place that gives proper face to the guest of honor, as the prices and seating arrangements are standardized, and thus there is no opportunity to make a special display. Yet it is just this standardization that, in the dating situation, becomes a positive attribute since the man taking out the girl does not have to be worried about losing face to another couple who is ordering a more lavish meal.

The final theme to emerge is the interpretation of modernity and youth as represented in the McDonald’s brand name. Modernity in relation to McDonald’s can take the form of cleanliness, sanitation, technology, brightness and newness. The connotation with youth comes primarily from the foodBbecause the food is so different from Chinese food, it is the young people who are the most willing to try it or eat it on a regular basis. The interpretation of the representation of modernity ranges from very positive to very negative depending on the cultural values brought up in each situation.

All of this suggests that in rapidly changing societies, brands can take on disparate cultural values and may even be central to how these disparate cultural values are being evaluated. Additionally, the results suggest the meanings attached to a brand name by consumers can be malleable and sometimes paradoxical in societies where cultural norms are in flux. The results also indicate that the meaning attached to a brand name at any given moment in time is largely dependent on the cultural values brought up in the specific usage or evaluation situation. For marketers, it becomes a difficult task to control the image the brand will have in the marketplace. McDonald’s does not always represent Westernization to the consumer, for instance. The interaction is a bit subtler than that, with some people using the brand to uphold traditional ways of interacting in some situations.

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