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How McDonalds failed in Fiji - then fixed it

Merrill Pereyra
12 July 2011 3 minute readShare
My Business

Merrill Pereyra spent 23 years with McDonald's as a senior executive responsible for expanding the company's operations into local and international markets. In this extract from his new book, Expand Your Brand, Merrill explains why it is critical to understand the culture of any new export market you target.



“Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.” - William Butler Yeat

It might sound really obvious, but many people simply do not think about what language they would like to conduct business in. Of course the day-to-day store business is conducted in the local language and trades in the local currency. But often business meetings and management training is carried out in another language. In McDonald’s case, it’s English. Straight away you have identified that you will need a bilingual assistant. Trust me it really helps. In the early days always check every translation even for the smallest memo; sometimes what we say is not what we mean.

By way of illustration, when an order is taken with a slight irregularity, say for example, a Big Mac with no cheese, we call this a ‘grill order’. On the opening day in Samoa it was hot and really busy. I was running around lubricating the wheels of industry and closing gaps when I noticed one customer who was waiting a long time and it transpired that he was waiting for a ‘grill order’. I started shouting, ‘Come on, get the grill out. I want the grill out now!’ or words to that effect.

After some time, I noticed that everything was slowing down. Like really slow. So I went into the kitchen and found four chefs trying to get the grill out. No, I mean the big apparatus for cooking the food. There were four strong Samoan guys about to pull the grill up from the floor and out of the wall. I screamed, ‘Stop! What are you doing?’ They looked at me in disbelief, ‘We are getting the grill out just like you asked!’

Never assume that just because you are an established brand, everyone will be familiar with the way you present or operate your business. It’s essential to conduct surveys and do research to find out what they know or what they assume about your brand.

Humans are very good at adding two and two and getting seven.

We made a grave assumption in Fiji: somehow we missed the fact that half the Fijian population were Fijian Indians and a large percentage of them, due to religious reasons, do not eat beef. On the first day we were met with countless complaints about the cheeseburger. I tasted a few and they were great. As the manager slowed down and I became present enough to hear what he was actually saying, I could not believe my ears. The complaint was about false advertising and misrepresentation.

When they ordered a cheeseburger they did not expect it to come with beef but only cheese. It was obvious to us, and equally obvious to them, what ingredients a cheeseburger contained – right? We had to act extremely quickly and have all the menu boards and signage updated to say, ‘Contains beef’.

I remember on the morning of the opening of the first restaurant in Fiji we had all been working like crazy to get ready. With about one hour to go before the opening an employee came up to me and asked me what I wanted him to do for the day as he was on the staff roster, but without a job description. I did not have the time to sort it out there and then so I improvised. I looked around and spotted a garbage bin on wheels that McDonald’s use for their car park and immediate surrounds. I asked him to make sure that he got all the litter from around the area.

The day was chaotic but it went relatively well. Later on that evening around 5pm, when I was heading back to my hotel for a fresh change of clothes, I saw the same employee picking up the garbage some six kilometres away from the restaurant. I could not believe my eyes. I asked him what he was doing and he said, ‘Cleaning up the area boss!’ I commended him on his initiative and dedication, gave him the money for a taxi home and told him we’d deal with the bin in the morning.

Key Points

  • Be clear, be specific, be simple.
  • Ensure that you have a bilingual partner or assistant in foreign countries.
  • Ask for some instructions to be repeated back to you.
  • Assume your team are hearing something for the first time until you find a clear communication channel and a frequency that everyone understands.
  • Always recap your meetings and conversations in 24 to 48 hours of the event happening. Write things on memos in large print for the staff locker rooms.
  • Learn some local common phrases and have fun with communication.

Never assume that just because you are an established brand, everyone will be familiar with the way you present or operate your business.

How McDonalds failed in Fiji - then fixed it
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Merrill Pereyra

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