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The people’s voice: Why is McDonald’s closing in Russia

During my internship at Idibon, I partnered with a fellow intern, Olga,to find out what Russian people are saying about the closures of McDonald’s in Russia. The results somewhat differed from what the western media was covering.

On August 31, 1990, the McDonald’s corporation opened its very first store in Russia on Moscow’s Pushkin Square. This was the largest McDonald’s store in the world at the time, with 28 cash registers and a capacity of 700 customers. The Pushkin Square store beat the record number of inaugural sales with 30,000 customers, and to this day, it serves 20,000 customers daily.[1]

In the quarter century since its opening, McDonald’s forged a predominantly positive and youthful image among Russians. However, during the last two years, its public reputation has declined amidst government investigations and allegations of hygiene regulations. By August 2014, about half of the 440 McDonald’s’ stores in Russia were under government investigation.

While several media sources (The Washington Post, Bloomberg Business, The Wall Street Journal) have speculated that the closing of McDonald’s’ locations is a part of the Kremlin’s retribution for the United States’ support of economic sanctions levied against Russia, relatively little attention has been paid to the voice of the customer in Russia. Our analysis of Russian social media showed that many cultural concerns dominated public conversations and played an important role in the overwhelmingly negative sentiment that Russians expressed towards the franchise.

In search of the Russian voice

For our analysis, we collected real-time posts about McDonald’s from Vkontakte (VK), the dominant social media platform in Russia which is similar to Facebook, for the week of June 19th to 26th, 2015. The search yielded a total of 12,000 posts. We chose VK as our data source due to it being, by far, the top Russian social media outlet, with over 100 million users. In addition, no national holidays or special events concerning McDonald’s occurred during this week.

We used topic modeling to find the most common themes in the data. Topic modeling is a tool that automatically and quickly clusters documents into common themes based on patterns of words that tend to appear together. It is an especially useful tool when doing exploratory analysis because it goes through every nook and cranny of your data and can reveal interesting and unexpected themes within the data.

Our initial round of topic modeling did not give a meaningful cluster of topics concerning people’s opinions on McDonald’s, but it did give a few well-defined clusters consisting entirely of irrelevant posts. One such cluster was all of the posts in Ukrainian, which were irrelevant to our analysis as we were only interested in posts from Russia. Another cluster consisted of posts that did mention McDonald’s, but using it as a geographical landmark, such as “Renting a two-bedroom apartment. Near shops, […] there is a McDonalds within a block”. After removing these posts, topic modeling yielded vastly more meaningful themes.

Screen-Shot-2015-08-03-at-4.08.56-PM
Each circle corresponds to a theme surfaced through topic modeling. The size of each circle corresponds to the percentage of the posts that belong to the topic; the distance between circles displays the semantic distance of the content between the topics.

Notice that no topic alone accounted for more than 10 percent of the data. In particular, the posts that are distinctly political in nature (topics 8 and 9) do not exceed 10 percent of the data combined. The overwhelming majority of the VK posts about McDonald’s, perhaps unsurprisingly, are about food and events involving the restaurant (topics 1,2,3,4,6, and 10). These topics are heavily overlapping, which is intuitive since someone talking about going to McDonald’s is also highly likely to mention a few food items and vice versa.

Closing McDonald’s: Yea or nay?

Screen-Shot-2015-08-03-at-4.09.23-PM

Among the posts expressing direct opinions on McDonald’s closures, the response was an exuberant support for closing them all down. The reasons vary. Some of them are patriotic, supporting Vladimir Putin’s food sanctions against the West and his positions in general. Others are based on the quality of the food (see below), while some express disillusionment with the current state of society and how McDonald’s has contributed to this degeneration.

Not everyone is vehemently negative about McDonald’s, however. While the people who don’t dislike McDonalds are less confrontational and fewer in number, they still cast their votes. In response to a video promoting the closure of McDonald’s, one VK user responds:

Screen-Shot-2015-08-03-at-4.09.31-PM

We did not find posts openly criticizing the Russian government’s actions on cracking down on McDonald’s. However, this does not mean that such sentiment is absent from social media. People facing heavy censorship tend to find creative ways to overcome it. The recent ban of swear words from Russian media and the ban of puns from Weibo in China are examples of such state censorships, which undoubtedly came to be as a response to covert forms of dissent.

Big Macs in the hotseat

The majority of social media discussions about McDonald’s didn’t deal with political issues but rather focused on the experiences of everyday consumers. Discussions about Big Macs in particular made up about 5 percent of our entire dataset. Opinions were divided. Just as in the United States, Big Macs appear to encompass everything that Russian customers both love and hate about McDonald’s: they are delicious, yet they are seen as incredibly unhealthy.

VK users described being in a state of bliss after eating a Big Mac, craving Big Macs, feeling guilty after eating Big Macs, and overwhelmingly, about Big Macs being poisonous or dangerous to eat. Even though Russian Big Macs are significantly healthier than American ones (there are no trans fats, and they contain 495 calories in comparison to the 560 calories in an American Big Mac), they were still discussed as a primary example of why eating at McDonald’s is unhealthy.

Borscht, not burgers: A cultural decision

One of the most pointed cultural insights from the data was that many of the negative reactions to McDonald’s food were not due to the fact that it is unhealthy, but rather that it is neither Russian nor homemade. For example, one user wrote:

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This trend of suggesting Russian alternatives to McDonald’s menu items was ubiquitous. VK users expressed preferences of homemade open-faced sandwiches to burgers, ice cream from street stands to McFlurries, and potatoes from the market or the family vegetable garden to french fries.

Discussions of potatoes were particularly strong. One popular post begins, “One can talk about potatoes forever. They are our second bread…” After going through the history of potatoes and all the benefits of growing them yourself, the user concludes, “Undoubtedly, when you talk about potatoes, you’ll remember moments of our childhood, when the fresh potatoes were roasted in the campfire. Alas, today’s young people probably never make potatoes this way, they just mostly crunch on their french fries from McDonalds. What a pity!”

‘Fast food’ contradicts the Russian cultural norm of slow, social dining.  In Soviet times, people only went out to restaurants for very special occasions such as weddings or large business meetings.  Even today, most Russians typically only go out to eat for special occasions. The ideal for dining out in Russia means staying at a restaurant for over an hour and savoring one’s food and the company of those around you.

Other justifications for why people preferred to eat at home were that homemade food was healthier or tastier than McDonald’s, or that homemade food was more Russian. There may be a correlation to be made that, as more people support Putin’s sanctions on Western products, more people choose to express their Russian identity through culinary experiences.

Perhaps the best summary of Russian cultural mentality when it comes to fast food comes from the following post:

Screen-Shot-2015-08-03-at-4.09.48-PM

A more Russian McDonald’s

McDonald’s is not ignorant of this cultural component and has adopted local food items for mass consumption in its Russian locations. Russians can choose between American style french-fries or ‘village-style potatoes’, fried potato wedges that are more rustic in style and resemble the potatoes that one might consume at grandmother’s house in the village. Other uniquely Russian food items on McDonald’s’ food menus are black currant muffins (black currants are far more popular in Russia than blueberries), blini (thin Russian crepes) with honey, and blintzes filled with raisins and dried apricots.

mcdsimage
Russian McDonald’s menu items. LEFT: blintzes with raisins and apricots;   RIGHT: Village-style potatoes.

Although there is no clear answer to why these measures did not have a strong influence on Russian perception of McDonald’s, it may simply be that these items are not authentic enough. If Russians want to have traditional blini or potatoes, they will simply make them at home.

Drive-thrus and celebrations

Although we have mainly focused on negative reviews of McDonald’s, it is important to note that many of the messages did talk about McDonald’s in a positive light. In our topic modeling, we found that topics #4 and #2 (“Good times” and “Events happening at Mcdonald’s”) were the predominantly positive topics, and they made up about 15% of the data. One specific service that Russians loved was MakAvto, the Russian equivalent of the McDonald’s drive-thru service. Many Russians celebrated birthdays and anniversaries at McDonald’s with friends and family, groups of friends agreed to meet at McDonald’s, girls discussed their recent dates at McDonald’s, and jokes about working at McDonald’s after college were exchanged, all in all, giving an impression that McDonald’s is a place where young people hang out.

A cultural contradiction to the Russian identity

Although we did surface some positive sentiment towards McDonalds in our data, the general sentiment was overwhelmingly negative. While it appears that McDonald’s’ closures throughout Russia are at least partially tied to the political conflict between the West and Russia, the public’s negative sentiment about McDonald’s is not merely due to government interference.

A high number of posts indicate a cultural conflict related to the Russian identity as expressed through culinary experience. Throughout the years since Putin took power in Russia, the expression of Russian identity has become more paramount than in the first years after the fall of the Soviet Union. In those first years, change and the novelty of Western cultural items were popular, an afterglow of the rush of excitement following in the wake of glasnost and perestroika This lead to the rise of McDonald’s’ popularity in Russia. Although there is still a positive sentiment present towards McDonald’s among younger people, the national attitude appears to have tilted.

There are few businesses that are more tied to the identity of American culture and capitalism than McDonald’s. We hope that this case study can point a light for other businesses who have marketing efforts in countries with strong national identities. Although it is not possible to identify events that tilt national attitude towards a topic in a one-week analysis, a longer time period study can further reveal the connection between political events and public opinion.

Notes:

1 Source: http://bit.ly/1uNfvMh
2  Banya = traditional Russian sauna/bath house
3  Pirozhok = Russian fried pastry, typically filled with meat/cabbage/potatoes/fruit
4  Kvass = traditional Russian beverage made from rye bread

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