An unfolding controversy involving McDonald's in Singapore indicates how important it is for multinational brands to have corporate responsibility managers with deep local insight on the ground.
McDonald's rolled out a promotion in the run up to the Chinese New Year, an important sales period for eateries.' The promotion included offering a collection of 12-character Doraemon set representing the animals of the Chinese zodiac calendar. A clever idea from the marketing perspective, indeed. Chinese love collecting the zodiac animal toys, especially during the Chinese New Year. McDonald's offered these collectibles at two dollars a piece if the customer buys a meal.
Somewhere in the middle of the campaign, Chinese consumers discovered that the collection had one animal missing- the pig. The collection would be incomplete without the pig. McDonald's had replaced the pig with a cupid. This upset the Chinese consumers. But McDonald's says it decided to exclude the pig to respect the sensitivities of its Muslim customers. All McDonald's outlets in Singapore are halal certified and the company thought offering a pig toy would be inappropriate.
But it seems McDonald's assumed a bit too much. It has now ended up annoying Chinese consumers. Local blogs and media reports are questioning McDonald's insensitivity toward the Chinese consumers. To make the matter worse, a number of media reports have quoted Muslim consumers and scholars who say there is nothing wrong with offering a pig toy in a halal certified outlet. After all, it's a toy, they explain.
McDonald's lack of cross-cultural understanding points to a common trend among multinational companies who often neglect to deploy corporate responsibility managers with local insight in Asia even though their significant growth comes from the region. Majority of them have left poorly-defined corporate social responsibility functions in the hands of public relations managers who don't view it beyond charitable giving or public relations gimmicks.
What McDonald's should have done was to engage with the Muslim community's leadership to discuss the promotion and the dilemma it faced. It should also have understood that an incomplete collection of zodiac toys will offend the Chinese customers. But an organization can think like this only if it has corporate responsibility drivers on the ground and principles of responsible business integrated into the day to day working of the organisation.