Western Food In China: KFC, Pizza Hut & McDonald’s


Entering a foreign market is never easy. Especially so, when your product is food. Even more so when you are selling it to China. China is a unique space where respect for tradition is generously garnished with awe for all things new and foreign. This puts any company wishing to sell food or beverages in China in a conundrum: how do you market your product in an environment that is so eclectic? As practice shows, this is not an undoable task – but the roads to success are as different as the companies that make it to the top of the local food chain.

How KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s Adapted to the Local Palate

Tastes differ – and tastes in China differ tremendously from those in the West. Despite the genuine interest in Western products, local consumers are still quite specific in what they like – and this means that new companies need to get the flavor just right.

KFC and Pizza Hut (both belonging to Yum! Brand) are a good example of flavor localization.  Having significantly altered their offering in China, the restaurants managed to attract Chinese consumers with Western fast food staples coupled with familiar flavors: seasonal vegetables (like taro or lotus root) with a rice meal, soy milk and fried dough sticks for breakfast and even varieties of batter-fried seafood. Pizza Hut’s menu is no less special with items like durian pizza, bacon wrapped quail eggs with abalone mushroom and warm corn juice. In 2015 KFC caught worldwide media attention with its best-selling black diamond bacon spicy chicken leg burger and the rose cheese roasted chicken leg burger – both even got a mention in Forbes magazine. With the focus on one of China’s most favorite meats – chicken – and an adjusted menu, KFC took the mainland by storm. After its first location in 1987, the Colonel now has 3,700 restaurants sprinkled across the country.

Unlike its counterparts, McDonald’s opened with a classic menu offering relying on the local fascination for “Western” lifestyle”: burgers and McNuggets were aplenty. However, the restaurant soon added new items to match the local demand: spicy chicken burger, red bean pie and a variety of tea-flavored beverages and saw the number of its locations increase to over 2000.

As you browse through the shelves of international supermarkets in China, you will see that quite a few companies have followed suit. Lay’s has introduced flavors like cucumber, hot and sour fish soup and even numb and spicy hot pot, just to name a few. Here, you can find Oreos with matcha tea filling, mung bean ice cream and discover that even Coke and Snickers do not taste the same.

China Is Shifting to a New Diet

As we fast forward to 2017, things are changing yet again. As more and more consumers decide to pursue a greener lifestyle, fast food joints are starting to lose popularity – perhaps, the cause behind both Yum and McDonald’s selling their Chinese operations to local consortiums. As the health trend progresses, new players enter the scene: Element Fresh, having started out as a small catering business in 2002, now proudly invites visitors to its 27 new restaurants. New trends mean new opportunities  – especially for those who employ a clever marketing strategy.

As numerous real-life examples have shown, there is no secret recipe for success and a marketing approach needs to be heavily tailored to a specific firm and product. A company that plans to sell to Chinese consumers is in for a challenge and the key ingredient to success in the Chinese fast food market comes with a bitter-sweet flavor: research, lots and lots of research.

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