Sex, Skin, Fireworks, Licked Fingers
Sex, Skin, Fireworks, Licked Fingers — It’s a Quarter Pounder Ad in China
SEPTEMBER 21, 2006
By GORDON FAIRCLOUGH and JANET ADAMY
SHANGHAI, China — Beef is luxurious. Beef is healthy. And, yes, beef is sexy.
These are the messages McDonald’s Corp. is sending Chinese consumers as it tries to seduce them into eating more hamburgers. One racy billboard ad features a close-up of a women’s lips; on another ad on the door of restaurants, a woman runs her hand over a man’s flexed biceps. “Flirt with your senses,” signs say.
The campaign — supporting the introduction in China of the Quarter Pounder — is part of a shift in strategy for McDonald’s. The company recently started focusing less on selling menu items created especially to appeal to local Chinese markets and more on pushing traditional American hamburgers.
When McDonald’s introduced the Quarter Pounder here earlier this month, it nixed an Asian-style triangle-shaped wrapper filled with beef or chicken and rice and decided against rolling out a “rice burger” in China. Still, the Chinese Quarter Pounder isn’t identical to its U.S. counterpart: It has cucumbers instead of pickles and tomatoes and a spicy sauce appealing to the Chinese palate — all the result of tests of more than 16 variations on consumers.
Beef, grown domestically, costs more than other meats in China, and consumers here consider it a luxury good. McDonald’s is playing on its upscale image, as well as on traditional Chinese views that eating beef boosts energy and heightens sex appeal. The word “beef” in Chinese has connotations of manliness, strength and skill.
The burger chain’s TV commercials are even racier than the print ads. In one spot, a man and a woman eat Quarter Pounders, and close-up shots of the woman’s neck and mouth are interspersed with images of fireworks and spraying water. The actors suck their fingers. The voice-over says: “You can feel it. Thicker. You can taste it. Juicier.”
A series of lighthearted print ads in trendy magazines lay out scenarios in which beef saves the day. In one, a young man frets that five women he has met online want to go out on dates with him the next day. The ad offers some solutions: Hire four friends. Split up the meetings. Or “have enough beef tonight” so he “will be able to handle five princesses tomorrow.” The ad urges readers to “inject protein and vitamins into your trendy body” by eating the Quarter Pounder.
Wen Long Chen, a 31-year-old Shanghai resident, says he comes to McDonald’s at least once a week to eat a hamburger. “I like beef,” Mr. Chen said recently while drinking a Coke at a downtown Shanghai McDonald’s. “I believe that for men, beef can bring energy.”
Whether a new focus on burgers succeeds in the world’s most populous country has long-term significance for the world’s largest restaurant chain. McDonald’s is looking to open some 230 new stores in China by 2008, bringing its total here to about 1,000.
At present, more than half of McDonald’s sales in China are of chicken products, while beef products make up only 35%. “The prevailing opinion has been that in China, everything is about chicken,” says Jeffrey Schwartz, chief executive of McDonald’s China operations, over a recent meal of a Quarter Pounder at a Shanghai McDonald’s located in a foreign trade zone. But consumer research and the success of promotions for the iconic Big Mac have brought about a change of heart, Mr. Schwartz says. “We need to own beef,” he says. “It’s who we are. It’s how we started.”
McDonald’s faces a number of hurdles in China. Rising real-estate costs are making it harder to secure ideal restaurant locations, though McDonald’s signed a deal earlier this year giving it the right to build stores at existing and future sites of the country’s largest gasoline retailer. McDonald’s says more than half of its new restaurants will be drive-throughs, to appeal to the burgeoning number of Chinese motorists. The chain is also keeping more of its restaurants open 24 hours a day.
“Our customers are young, modern, bilingual — like the people sitting next to us,” says Mr. Schwartz. At the next table, six co-workers, wearing jeans and Nike sneakers and fiddling with their PDAs, were having lunch. “If we’re not edgy in communications, out front in technology, this consumer is going to blow right by us,” Mr. Schwartz says.
Analysts say McDonald’s new strategy looks promising but that the company hasn’t disclosed enough financial details for them to evaluate its success. John Glass, an analyst for CIBC World Markets, says China is a profitable market for McDonald’s but hasn’t offered returns as rich as some other places, in large part because average sales per restaurant are about half of what they are in the U.S.
Mr. Schwartz leads an executive team sent to China about a year ago to halt sliding market share and revive McDonald’s performance there. For years, McDonald’s followed a different strategy in each region in China. Under Mr. Schwartz’s direction, McDonald’s across China are focusing on selling beef and adding more drive-through restaurants while boosting market research to determine which products consumers like best. Next year, McDonald’s plans to push breakfast items in China.
McDonald’s still wants to adapt its menu to local tastes. Recently, it added a corn cup in China and eliminated Diet Coke because it wasn’t a big seller. But the chain has moved more toward tweaking and adding sides rather than reshaping its core menu for the Chinese palate.
McDonald’s hopes the beef and the edgy ads will help set it apart from rivals and bolster its image as an “aspirational” brand in China, executives say. The effort takes McDonald’s in a direction opposite that of its biggest competitor, Yum Brands Inc., whose KFC fried-chicken chain, with more than twice as many outlets here as McDonald’s, serves up more meals designed especially for the Chinese market.
But as China has become richer, beef consumption has climbed at a faster rate than pork and chicken. And consumer research convinced executives that they should emphasize McDonald’s American roots. “People want McDonald’s to be a Western brand,” says Gary Rosen, McDonald’s chief marketing and corporate-affairs officer in China. “When people come to us, they want an alternative to what they can get everywhere else.”
—Willy Wu contributed to this article.