Localisation is the concept of always catering to a grassroots market – even if you are a huge multinational business with bases in almost every country. Like McDonald’s in fact.

Vincent: In Paris, you can buy a beer at McDonald’s. And you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

Jules: They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?

Vincent: Nah, man, they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what a Quarter Pounder is.

Jules: What do they call it?

Vincent: They call it a Royale with Cheese.

Pulp Fiction, 1994

You’ll probably recognise this exchange from the famous Pulp Fiction scene, in which Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L Jackson) discuss the “little differences” between the US and Europe. It is a scene that also brilliantly sums up the concept of localisation.

How localisation let McDonald’s take a bite out of overseas’ markets

The McDonald’s Corporation is among the largest fast food chains in the world. It held the number one position for years, but was surpassed by Subway in 2011 – although it remains the biggest hamburger restaurant, which is not to be sniffed at!

But just what is the key to McDonald’s success? Well, the secret is that it works hard to understand the individual markets it’s targeting. This means taking into account the different climates in the countries it plans to launch in, the people’s culture and what dishes are popular there.

So, just because you can walk into your local branch and order a Chicken Legend, don’t assume you’ll be able to find this on the menu if you visit Japan. In fact, a particular speciality at the Japanese McDonald’s is the EBI Filet-O, which consists of a deep-fried crispy prawn patty topped with mustard and Thousand Island dressing. Then there’s the fabulously-named German Sausage Chicken Burger, which was temporarily on the menu in Japan as part of a promotion. Interestingly, you won’t find this item on the menu in Germany, where Das Nurnburger – a bun stuffed with three bratwurst and mustard – was once a popular choice. And while you might enjoy a Maccy D’s bacon roll for breakfast, it doesn’t exist in Canada or the US, where you could settle for a sausage buttermilk biscuit instead.

Despite successfully launching in countless countries, localisation is not something McDonald’s is resting on its laurels about. Last month it announced it is opening its first vegetarian restaurant, in India where a large proportion of the population eat a meat-free diet. The fast-food chain told the Associated Press at the time that the menu on offer in its existing Indian branches is already semi-vegetarian in order to cater to diners.

Of course, McDonald’s is not the only business to take steps to localise its offerings. One marked success story is Starbucks, which is also within the top ten of the biggest international fast food brands. While the phrase “one on every corner” is often used to describe the coffee shop, this was not the case in China before it launched there in 1998. In this part of the world, tea has long been the hot beverage of choice. As a result, Starbucks carried out thorough market research and developed a menu that featured several tea-based drinks, while portraying its coffee drinks as possible alternatives rather than a replacement of tea.

Why you should bother with localisation

What all of this does is teach other businesses looking to branch out into an international market how vital effective localisation is. If you do not tailor the way you do business to suit your customers overseas, you should prepare yourself for potential failure.

Localisation goes much further than cooking up a new menu. To begin with, all your promotional material, including your website, will need to be translated in a way that takes into account localisation. Not only does this mean factoring in the differences between regional dialects, but also familiarising yourself with local idioms and slang.

For instance, if your slogan contains the famous English idiom “a leopard can’t change its spots”, it’s normal to expect that everyone in the UK will understand what you mean. However, don’t think you can simply translate the slogan into French and have it work the same way in a French market. The equivalent phrase over there is “chassez le naturel, il revient au galop”, which literally means “chase away the natural and it returns at a gallop”. This idiom doesn’t mention leopards, but it means the same thing – that nature cannot be altered.

The moral of the story

What all of this teaches us is that just because there’s little demand for a fried prawn patty in Britain, McDonald’s didn’t just assume diners elsewhere wouldn’t be interested. In conclusion; localisation is the key to globalisation.

So, next time you need a translation, be sure to account for the localisation as well.

What great and not so great examples of localisation can you think of?