Back in 1987, KFC launched the first American fast food outlet in China, and immediately goofed up. Its slogan of 50 years’ vintage, “finger lickin’ good”, was mistranslated into Mandarin as “eat your fingers off”. But since that debacle, the chicken giant has become the most popular fast food brand in China by appeasing local tastes. When McDonald’s localised and introduced veggie burgers in India, Americans called it blasphemy. When KFC started selling congee and the Dragon Twist — a close cousin of Peking Duck — in China, it was hailed as a master-stroke. Even KFC’s most popular ad is kung-fu-themed. In markets, size matters, and China is the world’s biggest.
Now, KFC has maxed out on majority appeasement. In a rare case of a capitalist logo tangoing with communist mythology, it has launched a Lei Feng Spirit outlet in Hunan, themed on the heroic soldier Lei Feng, who was born in that province and died young in 1962, in a freak accident. It is not clear if he was involved in the India-China conflict but it doesn’t matter, since much of his life story appears to been churned out by the party propaganda machine. Lei is China’s Che Guevara, but his cult has been losing traction in recent years, as China modernised and opened up. Even so, the novel co-branding should help KFC must keep ahead of the competition.
Starbucks has learned localisation from KFC. They sell Chinese-grown coffee and have more outlets in Shanghai than in any other city in the world. In a few years, China will have more than any other country. But maybe India holds the trump card on localisation: What’s to prevent us from re-exporting Chinese food back to China? In the streets of Beijing, there could be an unfelt need for our famous Gobhi Manchurian.