Since India liberalized its foreign investment policies in 1991, franchises have been tripping over themselves to gain a market foothold in the world’s largest democracy. From the perspective of a “temporary citizen” such as myself, the globalizing effects of international brands setting up shop in Mumbai can lead to some very interesting “mash-ups” of heritage.
Certain American brands have inculcated themselves into Indian culture with a fair amount of graceful re-invention. The McDonald’s restaurants I’ve been to in Mumbai, for instance, feature the same tasty “Filet-o-Fish” sandwiches, and near-identical restaurant designs as their American counterparts. However, rather than beef hamburgers, the company offers sandwiches like the “Spicy McPaneer,” the “McVeggie,” and various incarnations of the “McChicken.” The fries tasted about the same – delicious -- although I passed on the opportunity to shake them in “Piri-Piri” spice.
Though tea has been a top-selling Indian beverage ever since the British colonial days, coffee has become increasingly popular – according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Indian coffee consumption increased 80% between 2000 and 2010. The most ubiquitous coffee-shop is “Café Coffee Day,” a relatively bright-colored affair with loopy fonts on the menu and a variety of “brews and bites.” During my first few months in Mumbai, my guilty pleasure was their “Sizzle Dazzle Brownie” – an unabashedly Westernized brownie topped with marshmallows and cashews. Unfortunately, the particular Café Coffee Day near my apartment has chronically slow service, discouraging me from returning regularly.
I of course can’t extrapolate my experience with my local Café Coffee Day to the entire company, but I will note that the chain should be stepping up its game as they begin to compete with Starbucks, which opened their first Indian franchises in downtown Mumbai about two months ago. I have not been to the Mumbai Starbucks yet, although my roommate tells me it is as reliably efficient as any American location.
The Indian government generally encourages these international incursions, but there are still fairly substantial barriers to entry for foreign franchises. All international firms establishing themselves in India must essentially partner with Indian-based companies, such as the Tata Group or the United Breweries Group.
Indeed, before the Indian government restructured their role in the economy and opened up to foreign investment in the early 1990s, their close watch over foreign franchises did not always lead to fruitful results. Coca-Cola, for instance, first attempted to break into the Indian marketplace in the 1970s, until the Ministry of Commerce and Industry demanded the company reveal its secret formula. As the late Christopher Hitchens wrote, “Coke walked, rudely denouncing India as a basket case on the way out.” Of course, Coca-Cola couldn’t keep away from the tantalizing Indian marketplace for long – they re-entered India in 1993, and this year announced they would be stepping up investment in the country to $5 billion by 2020. Nothing washes down a spicy Indian meal like a cold Coke, in my opinion, although for the truly adventurous, traditional “masala sodas” provide quite the morning wake-up jolt. I also enjoy trying Indian-specific brand drinks, such as “Thums-Up” cola – a brand introduced in 1977 to off-set Coca-Cola’s absence, but eventually purchased by Coca-Cola to compete with Pepsi. The taste of “Thums-Up” is fairly similar to generic cola, although it holds a stronger “kick” – which I hypothesize is meant to emulate masala sodas. My office cafeteria also sells “Nimbooz” – an uncarbonated lemonade beverage packaged by Pepsi and sold under the 7Up umbrella. “Nimbooz” seems to be patterned off the Indian preference for “salted-and-sugared” lemonade, although for my tastes, there’s a bit too much chemical.
These differences in product presentation are surprising, but often well-calculated, as companies seek to appeal their products to an entirely different culture without diluting brand identity. Regardless of one’s opinion on the nutritional worth of McDonalds food, I was fairly impressed they could take an Indian snack as provincial as aloo tikki – essentially a North Indian patty of potatoes and spices – and turn it into the mass-market “McAloo Tikki” menu item. To an extent, I am heartened that such extensive investment in market research and food science pays off – successful companies like McDonalds take the diverse Indian tastes seriously. At the same time, there is comfort and even commercial appeal in a universal product. At its core, a Coke is still a Coke on whatever continent you may land, and this brand trustworthiness is crucial – whether you’re selling coffee, hamburgers or soda.
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