What McDonald’s Can Teach You About Taking Your Online Community Global

McDonald’s sell french fries but it doesn’t sell onion rings.  Why?

There is an urban legend that says Ray Kroc’s first beloved sweetheart was killed when a huge burlap sack full of onions fell on her and smothered her. From that day forward he vowed never to support the onion industry and only reluctantly allowed chopped onions to be added to McDonald’s burgers.

For some reason I don’t think that is true, but do think there is a lesson that online communities (and other businesses) can learn from McDonald’s about globalization and localization.

First, let’s talk about globalization since that’s what matters most when talking about onion rings.  The business school legend on why McDonald’s doesn’t sell onion rings as part of their standard menu is that the world’s onion supply is insufficient to support the sale of onion rings in their stores globally.  Apparently the potato supply is sufficient to ensure that anyone who comes to one of the 33,000+ stores in one of 120+ countries can order a standard french fry.  (I know there are some operations issues such as the cost of production, the batter tainting the taste of the oil, and the amount of time the onion rings will stay fresh, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s just focus on the issues related to globalization.)

So what is the lesson related to globalization?

Globalize when there is a common experience expected of your brand.

On more than one occasion when traveling internationally with friends or colleagues, I have witnessed my American travel mates scouting out the nearest McDonalds.  They do it either when they first arrive as insurance that they will be able to find some familiar food if they don’t like the fair of the country we’re visiting, or if they need a taste of home after several days.  There is an expectation of the McDonald’s brand that, anywhere in the world, you should be able to get a burger and fries that is pretty similar to the one you get at home.  And for the most part, this expectation is consistently fulfilled.

  • Do visitors to your community expect to be able to have the same experience when they access it from anywhere in the world?
  • Do they want to be able to discuss the same issues in China, the U.S. and Germany?
  • Is it helpful for them to be able to connect with people from Canada, Egypt, and Russia?

If the answer to these questions, or some variation of them, is yes, then you should globalize.  Invite members from around the world to engage together in a single location.  Allow members to select the language they would like to read the content in and translate it, both the menus and the user-generated content.  This allows for everyone to participate in the same community, but in their own language.

But, McDonalds does sell onion rings – and that is what we can learn from them about localization.

The exact same menu all across the world would severely limit their sales.  There are regional differences in the United States – I think there would be an uproar if people in the South couldn’t get their sweet tea – and certainly variations exist in other countries.

You can buy onion rings in Turkey, and since they don’t eat beef in India, your hamburger will be substituted for a veggie patty, lamb, or chicken in India.

Why would McDonald’s violate their strategy to add something that is not on the global menu in one country and delete the primary global menu item, the hamburger (over 100,000,000,000 sold), in another country?  Because they understand that in order to accomplish their mission – “to be the world’s best quick service restaurant experience. Being the best means providing outstanding quality, service, cleanliness, and value, so that we make every customer in every restaurant smile” – they need to localize their approach.

So what is the lesson related to localization?

Focus on the best way to accomplish your mission in the local market instead of blindly repeating tactics that worked in other markets.

You just cannot sell a beef hamburger in India and expect the customers to smile.  Beer will put a smile on the face of many Germans, and beans and rice will have the people in Costa Rica saying “I’m lovin’ it.”

  • What are people in this market passionate about?  How does that passion relate to your community strategy?
  • What are the cultural norms that dictate how they interact with each other?
  • What types of content are they interested in and in what format are they most likely to consume it?

Should I globalize or localize?

This answer to this question for most businesses is going to be Yes.  You need to both globalize and localize.  It is very difficult to establish a brand or leverage the existing strength of your primary brand in another market if there is no consistency across markets.  In McDonald’s-speak, identify your burger and fries.

Next step, learn what it will take to put a smile on the face of the members in the local market and go ahead and embrace serving those onion rings in Turkey.


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