Are big brands impeding on local cuisines?

When I was younger, my parents had a rule on family holidays that we could not eat at McDonald’s or Starbucks when we were away. A way of preserving the cultural experiences of our trips, this unfortunately didn’t always work. A late night McDonald’s after a delayed flight and a Starbucks early the morning after were just too convenient to resist at times, and once broken a rule never holds quite the same. 

I completely understand my parents thoughts when they decided this was the way family holidays should be. I have many treasured memories of tasting new delicacies in restaurants far away from the tourist trail having no idea what I was about to eat, ordering using a few words thrown together from a phrase book and some pointing. This has led to some slightly less palatable ones after the local delicacies which proved themselves to be… interesting. 

This summer, however, our destination of choice was California, and it’s not hard to argue that the local cultural staples are the McDonalds and Starbucks we spent many trips avoiding. This proved to be an interesting experience in itself; Starbucks tastes somewhat sweeter across the pond, portion sizes are enlarged and the choices seem to be endless. 

While big brands are the centrepiece of American culture, this is not so true for other nations worldwide and there is much fear that globalisation is impacting upon cultural integrity. Brands have the power to change culture through their products and advertising and need to seriously consider the impact they may be having. But merely considering the impacts isn’t enough – there needs to be more safeguards to keep corporations responsible for the consequences of their actions in developing nations: native cultures need to have a voice. 

However, a piece in Forbes last year suggests that for both culture and brands to thrive, they should be intertwined. The argument being that both find their roots in stories and storytelling, and they need to tell stories that people can relate to. This could mean not telling people living in rural areas of Asia about the characters on American TV but about their local celebrities, but it could also mean telling consumers in Hanoi about the ways they could benefit from a development. While it appears that this idea could provide a dual benefit, the idea of having culture and corporate so closely linked seems scary, and rightly so. It’s important to consider who the storyteller is in this narrative, and what their intentions are. I’m sure we all know that for the most part big brands don’t care about the issues occuring in rural native populations.  While there has been a rise in ‘conscious’ brands whose marketing is structured around the positive messages of their brand identity, the transparency of these companies is still up for debate. 

Tourists need to also consider how they spend their so called ‘tourist dollar’. How tourists spend their money directly contributes to the development of growing economies and dictates whether smaller businesses will survive the growth period. For many small business owners, being able to feed their families their dinner depends directly upon visitors deciding to buy their wares that day, and with corporate competition increasing, there are worries that it will get harder to stay afloat. 

While more McDonald’s and Starbucks will be popping up around the globe, I’ll still try and avoid them on my next trip in the hopes that my tourist dollars can directly contribute to someone’s livelihood instead.

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Laura Taylor

March 2021
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