Scot McPhee on Mon, 6 Sep 1999 21:32:58 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Serbifying McDonalds

 [was: FW: How Big Mac Was Able to Refrain From Becoming a Serb Archenemy]

 The Wall Street Journal
 September 3, 1999
 How Big Mac Was Able to Refrain From Becoming a Serb Archenemy


 BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- During most of the 78-day air war against
Yugoslavia, while NATO kept the bombs dropping, McDonald's kept the burgers

 Vandalized at the outset by angry mobs, McDonald's Corp. was forced to
temporarily close its 15 restaurants in Yugoslavia. But when local managers
flung the doors open again, they accomplished an extraordinary comeback
using an unusual marketing strategy: They put McDonald's U.S. citizenship on
the back burner.

 To help overcome animosity toward a quintessential American trademark, the
local restaurants promoted the McCountry, a domestic pork burger with
paprika garnish. As a national flourish to evoke Serbian identity and pride,
they produced posters and lapel buttons showing the golden arches topped
with a traditional Serbian cap called the sajkaca (pronounced shy-KACH-a).
They also handed out free cheeseburgers at anti-NATO rallies. The basement
of one restaurant in the Serbian capital even served as a bomb shelter.

 Now that the war is over, the company is basking in its success. Cash
registers are ringing at prewar levels. In spite of falling wages, rising
prices and lingering anger at the U.S., McDonald's restaurants around the
country are thronged with Serbs hungry for Big Macs and fries. And why not,
asks 16-year-old Jovan Stojanovic, munching on a burger. "I don't associate
McDonald's with America," he says. "Mac is ours."

 This is music to Dragoljub Jakic's ears. The 47-year-old managing director
of McDonald's in Yugoslavia was the mastermind behind the campaign to
"Serbify," at least during the war, an American icon. "We managed to save
our brand," the six-and-a-half-foot-tall Mr. Jakic says with a grin.

 That was no easy task. As the fast-food industry's superpower, McDonald's
is a global symbol of Western pop culture, Yankee know-how and American
corporate cunning. But prominence on the world stage can be a lightning rod
for trouble, and the company is often exposed to outbursts of anti-American
sentiment and a myriad of political grievances. Last month, a McDonald's
restaurant in Belgium was burned down, and animal-rights activists are the
suspected arsonists.

 Youth Mobs

 The sacking of McDonald's in Yugoslavia came after only one night of air
strikes. Whipped to patriotic fervor by the state-controlled media attacks
on the "NATO criminals and aggressors," mobs of youths -- many wearing Nike
shoes and Levi's jeans -- targeted three McDonald's branches in Belgrade and
restaurants in the cities of Jagodina, Cacak and Zrenjanin, smashing windows
and scribbling insults on doors and walls.

 The incidents shocked Mr. Jakic, who was more worried at the time about
stray NATO bombs than the rage of his fellow citizens. "We have been in
Yugoslavia for years, during which time we sponsored schools, sports clubs
and children's hospitals," he says. "We're part of the community. We never
thought anyone would do something bad to us."

 McDonald's, in fact, was once the pride of Belgrade, opening in the capital
on March 24, 1988 -- exactly 11 years to the day before the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization began bombing. It was the first branch in Central Europe
and quickly became a source of local pride. At soccer matches in the old
Yugoslavia, when teams from Belgrade met opponents from Zagreb, the Croatian
capital, Belgrade fans would taunt their rivals with chants of "We have
McDonald's and you don't!"

 In 1996, the company began expanding, opening restaurants in seven other
Serbian cities. But on March 26, the day after the mob attacks, Mr. Jakic
closed all his restaurants. He then called his top managers to Belgrade for
brainstorming sessions to devise a survival strategy.

 'Restaurant Is a Target'

 Within a week, they had launched a campaign to identify the plight of
ordinary Serbs with the big burger joint. "McDonald's is sharing the destiny
of all people here," read a sign at one branch. "This restaurant is a
target, as we all are. If it has to be destroyed, let it be done by NATO."

 A key aspect of the campaign was to present McDonald's as a Yugoslav
company. Though they are registered as local businesses, every restaurant in
Yugoslavia in fact is 100% owned and operated by McDonald's. Mr. Jakic says
McDonald's needed to get Serbs to view the company as their own.

 It was in this vein that he and his team decided to redesign the logo with
the Serbian cap, cocked at a haughty angle over one arch. Traditional
national emblems, like the sajkaca, have undergone a revival in recent years
with the rise of Serbian nationalism.

 Mr. Jakic says the choice of the cap had nothing to do with politics. "The
sajkaca is a strong, unique Serbian symbol. By adding this symbol of our
cultural heritage, we hoped to denote our pride in being a local company,"
he says.

 The company also brought back the McCountry pork burger, first released
throughout Central Europe in early March, and lowered its price. The economy
of preindustrial Yugoslavia was based on the pig trade, and pork is
considered the most Serbian of meats. Mr. Jakic says his relaunch wasn't an
attempt to pander to local sentiments, but to give people a break during
hard times.

 There was no time for premarket trials of his plans. "We just jumped in,"
Mr. Jakic says. In less than a week, McDonald's had printed new banners,
tray liners, lapel buttons and posters of the redesigned arches set against
the blue, white and red colors of the Serbian flag. On April 17, Belgrade
restaurants were reopened and more than 3,000 free burgers were delivered to
the participants of the Belgrade marathon, which was dominated by an
anti-NATO theme. At the same time, the company announced that for every
burger sold it would donate one dinar (about a nickel) to the Yugoslav Red
Cross to help victims of NATO's airstrikes.

 'A Hamburger Guy'

 At McDonald's corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., spokesman Chuck
Ebeling says the Yugoslav campaign was a product of local management and was
in no way directed or encouraged by the head office. Mr. Jakic "was
functioning as a hamburger guy and not as a politician," Mr. Ebeling says
"He was doing what he felt he should do, and needed to do, to be locally
accepted and to maintain the support of local government and of his
employees. He demonstrated how adaptive he could be under the

 Mr. Jakic says he was praised by his superiors at a meeting at McDonald's
regional headquarters in Vienna. And while he says he is happy his campaign
helped McDonald's to prosper during exceptional circumstances, he was also
quick to return to business as usual. As soon as the war ended, on June 10,
the arches reappeared, without the green cap. "We simply believed that our
message was received and there was no reason to continue," Mr. Jakic says.

 Asked if the cocky sajkaca had been ditched forever, Mr. Jakic smiles. "We
will make an investigation to see how it worked, and then maybe we'll
fine-tune it," he says. "We've not abandoned it completely."

 The campaign certainly made an impression here. At one McDonald's, a green
book for customer comments records the delight of Belgraders when the
restaurant reopened and unveiled its new approach. "We are so happy to see
the campaign to help people hurt by the war. It's very humane and the only
way to justify the business of an American restaurant in Yugoslavia," wrote
Andjela, Aleksandra and Dragan, on April 18. The same day, Isidora wrote:
"McDonald's is the only American who wished to become a Serb."

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