‘Glocalisation’ combines the words ‘globalisation’ and ‘localisation’ to emphasise the idea that a global product or service is more likely to succeed if it is adapted to the specific requirements of local practices and cultural expectations. The term started to appear in academic circles in the late 1980s, when Japanese economists used it in articles published by the Harvard Business Review. For the sociologist Roland Robertson, who is often credited with popularising the term: ‘glocalization means the simultaneity – the co-presence – of both universalizing and particularizing tendencies’ (Robertson, 1997, p. 4). However, the extent to which a global, lumbering, bureaucratic giant can command the agility necessary to communicate and compete in the local environment is often limited. Despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on market research associated with new product innovation, global firms can still get it badly wrong. For example, the automobile industry has made several attempts to brand its products with evocative names that call to mind rather different images in the local context. In the 1980s, Mitsubishi's award-winning Pajero four-wheel drive had to be renamed in Spain and Spanish-speaking Latin America owing to the name's unfortunate connotations, in the local context, as an offensive slang term.
Although McDonald's is often cited as a clear example of standardisation, the president of McDonald's International has insisted that the company is ‘as much a part of local culture as possible’ (quoted in Ritzer, 2004, p. 179) and its standard menu has been glocalised to accommodate local foods. In the British case, this reflects the country's fondness for Indian food with offerings such as ‘McChicken Korma Naan’. Burger King, Wimpy and other hamburger outlets have also offered their own versions of Indian meals. Thus, the original glocalisation of Indian food for the British market has itself become the input for a new wave of glocalisation.
McDonald's has also glocalised the way in which its restaurants are used. In Beijing, the menu is the same as in the USA, but the restaurants are presented as local places to linger, often for hours, over a snack. It organises children's birthday parties and employs female receptionists who deal with children and talk to parents. Indeed, in Japan, Taiwan and other East Asian outlets, customers have quietly but stubbornly transformed their local McDonald's into a local – or ‘glocal’ – establishment (Ritzer, 2004, pp. 179–80). In this respect, the expectations mediated by ‘local rules of practice’ have enabled a reinterpretation of an ostensibly ‘universal’ product and service, as Box 1 illustrates.
Box 1 McDonald's in China: same product, different context
In today's China, especially in the medium-sized and big cities, outlets for North American and European global brands are springing up quickly: McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Next, Etam and many more have become familiar. However, when you walk out of the shop, the trappings of Western business evaporate as you enter a China where the influences of cultural traditions that stretch back millennia remain robust. In 1990, McDonald's opened its first restaurant in China and now has over 400 outlets. Nevertheless, when Chinese people walk into McDonald's they take their traditions with them! Whereas many Western customers view McDonald's restaurants as the source of a quick and cheap meal, the Chinese typically make an occasion of going to McDonald's. Customers fall mainly into two categories: families accompanied by small children, and young couples on a date. Going to McDonald's is either a family event and a treat for children, or a place where young people can show off. The Chinese construction of what it means to have ‘a meal in McDonald's’ is not necessarily convergent with Western constructions of the same activity. From McDonald's point of view, the Big Mac is a standard product that is sold around the world: it fits with Levitt's (1983) concept of a standardised product in a global market. In contrast, customer constructions of what McDonald's means to them can vary significantly. In other words, even an emblem of global standardisation, such as McDonald's, can be read differently by different people in different contexts.