McDonald's bulgogi burger is just one example of US restaurants adapting to Asian tastes. Image: Flickr user Zack Lee

American Restaurants Localize to Succeed in Asia

Asia Japan Korea India

One defining factor behind the success of franchise restaurant chains across the US is that people from anywhere in the country can walk in and find something that tastes exactly like what they can find back home. When traveling to unfamiliar destinations, that consistency provides comfort and leads to customers coming back again and again. This is true of drive-thru fast food chains as much as it is of dine-in, sit-down meal chains.

A typical example of a food franchise that can be found around the world is McDonald’s. There are more than 35,000 McDonald’s locations all over the world, but interestingly the menus in each store vary from country to country. Each country’s locations will be consistent with each other to maintain that important familiarity factor, and some iconic items are consistent globally, but unique menu items that appeal to the local market are key to McDonald’s success in expanding its global reach.

In Korea, there is a bulgogi -burger, based on one of Korea’s favorite national dishes, and most Koreans like it. In India, McDonald’s has no Big Mac, the restaurant’s most iconic menu item, due to cultural and religious attitudes towards eating beef. Due to the specific demands and tastes in certain areas, food franchises need to adapt to local tastes to succeed when expanding into new markets. McDonald’s has embraced localization to become the world’s biggest restaurant chain.

Burger King, the second largest burger franchise following McDonald’s, has begun a visually unique approach to localization in Japan – the kuro series of burgers is part local flavor, part marketing gimmick, and has been proving very popular. The flavor of these black burgers comes from bamboo charcoal, and ingredients like squid ink, which is popular ingredient among Japanese consumers, are also being used. Though the color seems unusual to foreign customers, Burger King has tried to localize to succeed in the Japanese market, much like McDonald’s has done elsewhere, by developing new items especially for Japanese customers. In fact, there are already three kinds of kuro burger.

Sticking to the classic American menu might be enough for many restaurants to do well in Asia, but localization helps them appeal to new customers and promote demand for the franchises. The question remains as to what innovative adaptation of American food will be added to local menus next.

Kawoon Kim is an Asan Academy Intern at the East-West Center in Washington.