Monday, May 29, 2006

Balance of trade

Foodservice know-how has long been a prized export, with most nations viewing the United States as the Hogwarts where ketchup-blooded whizzes learned how to conjure fortunes from the need to eat. After all, the chain restaurant industry was forged and refined here. What better source for the how-to’s on turning burgers and fries into silver and gold?

But recent innovations abroad suggest the flow of breakthrough ideas may be reversing. Perhaps it’s because overseas markets are younger, or inhibitions are generally lower, or decades-old thinking is less revered when a country’s history extends back a thousand years. Whatever the reasons, overseas outposts of American brands have lately been flashing considerably more daring in what they put on a menu or how they attempt to solve major problems of the business.

Consider the outposts of McDonald’s alone. Units in Britain, as we noted online several weeks ago, are testing a larger version of the chain’s signature Big Mac as a limited-time offer. It seems highly unlikely the home office would risk tinkering with such an icon on this side of the Atlantic. But over there, boldness reigns, perhaps because it’s so direly needed. The chain has acknowledged that the U.K. has been a difficult market for the brand.

Turning the Big Mac into more of a whopper seems tame compared with the new recruitment technique McDonald’s is trying in the U.K. As we report in the May 30 edition of Nation’s Restaurant News’ electronic newsletter (accessible from our website), stores there are in effect offering jobs to whole families instead of individual members, with the household allowed to decide who’ll be working on what days. It reminds me of the days when an elder child ostensibly had a paper route, but actually the entire family pitched in to fulfill the responsibility. As our story reports, McDonald’s U.S.A. is keeping an eye on the experiment, to see if it makes sense to import here.

And then there’s McDonald’s Japanese operation and the marketing dares it takes. If you doubt that a braver mindset prevails, consider this take-off on Ronald McDonald, used to promote a burger available there called the Tomato McGrand:

There’s also a version of the commercial that features a male model, similarly done up in Queer Eye-approved Ronald McDonald threads.

It’s only fair to note that McDonald’s did try to put some spice in Ronald’s image back in the mid-1990s, when commercials showed the mascot engaging in adult activities like shooting pool. But in a matter of months the world’s best-known clown was back in his old guise, hanging out with the Grimace and the other lovable McDonald’s characters in the usual heart-warming situations.

Perhaps those overseas markets suffered earlier from the issues currently afflicting homeland operations, like the relevance of consistency, speed and bargain prices to a clientele decidedly more appreciative of adventure, freshness and quality. Or the underside of being such an entrenched symbol of the American establishment. Come to think of it, sky-high fuel prices have been known there for decades, though it’s tough to see how that reality translates into greater marketing.bravo.

The question is whether that overseas audacity will convince home operations to loosen up a bit and take more risks on their own. It’s hard for someone of my vintage to appreciate Burger King’s bizarre new Gen X marketing programs, but you have to acknowledge that the chain's effort is original and unorthodox.

Will more players take similar risks, or will safe and steady translate into stolid and slow? And will that make Europe and Asia the new crucibles for killer chain ideas?

Our balance of trade is bad enough already.

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