Adieu, Ronald McDonald

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Like the Romans before it, the empire of the Golden Arches has finally succumbed to the indomitable spirit of Asterix the Gaul. As of Wednesday, Ronald McDonald has been retired as the icon of McDonald's France, replaced by the Gallic nationalist comic-book hero. Ironies abound, of course, since Asterix had been something of an anti-Mcdonald's icon, appropriated by anti-globalization protestors such as Mac-basher Jose Bove to symbolize French resistance to foreign encroachment. Resentment of the perceived "McDonaldization" of their culture runs high in France — the influential daily Le Monde, for example, warns that Mcdonald's "commercial hegemony threatens agriculture and (its) cultural hegemony insidiously ruins alimentary behavior — sacred reflections of French identity."

That may sound a little hysterical to the rest of the Mcworld, but spare a thought for those who actually have to market Big Macs to a population primed to view them as alien invaders out to ruin their sacred "alimentary behavior." Co-opting Asterix may simply have been a case of the judo of globalization — use your enemy's momentum against him.

This is hardly the first time McDonald's France has aligned itself with symbols alien to, and even at odds with America's own. In 1998, for example, the company ran a print ad campaign featuring overweight cowboys complaining about the fact that McDonald's France refuses to buy American beef but uses only French, to "guarantee maximum hygienic conditions" — an unsubtle effort to identify the Global Arches with European efforts to block the import of hormone-laced American beef.

Americans may find it strange to see their "official sandwich" touted by a bellicose cartoon warrior with pigtails and a big moustache, but such adjustments are part and parcel of marketing across cultures. Indeed, if an Indian Mac tastes a little different, that's because it's a "lamb-burger" — eating beef offends Hindu tradition. Forget about ordering a cheeseburger at a kosher outlet in Israel (mixing milk and meat is a no-no), but you could always console yourself in Cairo with a "McFalafel," or in Bangkok with a "Samurai Pork Burger." Big Macs are hard to find on the menus of the 80 Mcdonald's outlets in Beijing, which include spicy chicken wings and red bean pie — the Big Mac is there, of course, it's just sporting a more grandiose moniker: "Lu Wu Ba" ("huge incomparable warlord").

Not only do local McDonald's marketers have to adapt the chain's offerings to the local palate, they are also often careful to align their product with local heroes and concerns. Sometimes that's a hedge against the Golden Arches becoming the first stop, as it invariably is, for any anti-American mob assembled to protest some aspect of U.S. foreign policy. It's fine for the Golden Arches to be identified with all things American in markets where all things American are celebrated. Elsewhere, however, different tactics may be required.

U.S. support for Israel in the course of the current Palestinian intifada, for example, aroused deep hostility on the streets of Cairo, Amman and Riyadh, and boycott calls threatened McDonald's revenues. So, nimble local marketing executives found novel ways to reclaim their market share. In Saudi Arabia, the local license-holders for McDonald's came up with a unique promotion during Ramadan two years ago — giving 25 cents (American) out of every sandwich sold to that country's 'Al Quds Intifada Fund,' which supported Palestinian children's hospitals treating casualties of the uprising. And in Egypt, local marketers chose singer Shaaban Abdel-Rahim to perform the jingle for its new McFalafel sandwich — a national hero for his hit song "I Hate Israel," which had become the signature tune of the boycott.

Needless to say, neither the Saudi intifada promotion nor Egypt's choice of pop star had head office approval, and the Abdel Rahim campaign was quickly dropped following protests by the American Jewish Committee. Still, they appeared to have been sound local business decisions in consumer markets where anti-U.S. anger had threatened McDonald's revenues. Mohammed Emam, marketing coordinator of the Saudi company that owns the local franchise told a Saudi newspaper, "We want to prove to people that even though McDonald's is an American franchise, it cares about the plight of the Palestinians."

"Indigenizing" McDonald's has been a major component of adapting the brand to its global role — more of the company's earnings today come from abroad than from its U.S. outlets. As former McDonald's President James Cantalupo had said in 1991, the company's strategy was to make itself "as much part of the local culture as possible."

It's the protestors that take McDonald's to symbolize all that America stands for; the company's own marketers work to identify the brand with the tastes and cultural preferences of the target population. In France, that has meant deploying "ugly American" caricatures in its ads and substituting Asterix for Ronald McDonald. The general idea is to make the famously malcontented French youth (in their Levis and Nikes) feel comfortable stopping in for a Big Mac on their way home from an anti-American demonstration.