Cultural Influences on Brand Identity Impressions: kfc in China and the United States

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Cultural Influences on Brand Identity Impressions:

KFC in China and the United States
Terrence H. Witkowski, California State University, Long Beach, USA

Yulong Ma, California State University, Long Beach, USA

Dan Zheng, Qingdao University, China
This research measured and compared the brand identity of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in China and the United States. Brand identity was defined as the customer impressions of four KFC identity elements -- properties, products, presentations, and publications. A survey of young consumers in the two countries (n = 795), showed that the Chinese respondents were more apt to eat in KFC restaurants, and spend more time doing so, than the Americans. The Chinese also had much more positive impressions of KFC than their U.S. counterparts. Finally, Chinese brand identity impressions were less highly correlated with overall customer satisfaction and with future patronage. These preliminary findings indicate that consumers in different countries actively localize this nominally globalized product.

Managerial and Theoretical Issues
Increasingly, companies and their brands need to offer more to consumers than just core products and services. To maintain a competitive edge, they also need to include experiential, sensory, and aesthetic benefits. Ordinary service interactions become experiences when customers are engaged in a personal, memorable way (Pine and Gilmore, 1998). Memorability, in turn, depends greatly upon the sensory or aesthetic qualities of the offering. Intelligent marketing of sensory experiences should result in higher levels of customer satisfaction and repeat purchasing. Schmitt and Simonson (1997) contend that good aesthetics management also creates customer loyalty, allows for premium pricing, cuts through information clutter, affords protection from competitive attacks, saves costs through standardization, and, as an internal marketing tool, motivates employees.
The management of experiences and aesthetics contributes to corporate and brand identity, an organization's overall public face. Corporate and brand identity consists of four major elements -- properties, products, presentations, and publications -- all of which are infused by sensory and aesthetic attributes.
"Basic elements of Properties are buildings, offices, retail spaces, and company vehicles. Basic elements of Products include specific aspects or attributes of the good or service. Presentations are the surroundings of the good, such as packaging, labeling, and tags, or surroundings of the service, such as shopping bags, place settings, napkins, and the appearance of employees. Publications include promotional materials, advertising, business cards, and stationary" (Schmitt and Simonson, 1997, p.61).
The specific (or second-order) identity elements vary considerably from one industry and type of business model to another, and from parent corporations to their different brands. For example, the tangible products of a computer manufacturer have little in common with the service offerings of an airline or a luxury hotel. Whereas corporate-level publications stress press releases and annual reports, brand publications typically rely upon televised image advertising. Corporate identities are also far more likely to stress the properties element, such as the distinctively shaped Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, than are brand identities.
In the case of a fast-food company, the subject of this study, the organization and the brand are one and the same and all four elements contribute to company identity. The following are representative second-order identity elements of a fast-food chain:

  • Properties: restaurant façade; color schemes and décor; arrangement of indoor ordering and dining areas; restroom facilities

  • Products: menu item names and descriptions; food appearance, smell, and taste; food ingredients, nutrition, balance, and assortment (snack v. complete meal)

  • Presentations: in-store place settings (trays, tableware, napkins); take-out packaging; employee appearance, efficiency, and courtesy

  • Publications: consumer advertising; web pages; outdoor signage; in-store promotions; trade characters

All four of these elements have substantial sensory and aesthetic components that influence what customers experience. It should be noted, however, that conceptual distinctions between these identity elements are not entirely cut and dried. In the case of fast-food and motel chains, buildings (a property element) can be considered a kind of packaging (a presentation element) for the core product/service offerings (Berg and Kreiner, 1990; Hine, 1995). Serving the same functions as the packaging of consumer goods, buildings as packages protect, identify, and promote the services taking place inside. In fact, U.S. law makes little distinction between packaged buildings and packaged goods. The look and feel of a chain of supermarkets, restaurants, transmission centers, theme parks, or dental offices are protected on the same basis as the design of a box, bottle, can, or tube. Both are forms of "trade dress" and subject to the same protections (Hine, 1995).
Managing identity is especially challenging internationally since one or more of the four identity elements typically needs to be adjusted to maximize local consumer response, and yet done in such a way as to not sacrifice the advantages of a global image. International marketers have long realized that products and services frequently must be adapted to the varying needs and preferences of consumers in different countries. In the fast-food industry, menu offerings are influenced by the prevailing cultural values -- Maharaja Macs at McDonald's India, Teriyaki McBurgers at McDonald's Japan, and Kosher and non-Kosher restaurants in McDonald's Israel -- and advertising, outdoor signage, and in-store ephemera need to be in the native language. Restaurant architecture frequently incorporates native motifs and global trade characters can take on a local flavor. The entrances of some Chinese KFC restaurants are guarded by full-size, fiberglass models of Colonel Sanders who, in his Asian reincarnation, looks a little portly like a Buddha. The goal of marketing management is to create positive identity impressions in the consumers' minds, even if this entails some alteration of the global identity expressions.
On the other hand, fast-food corporations, like many other multinationals, do standardize their identity expressions as much as possible. McDonald's and KFC restaurant signage, store layouts, color schemes, menu choices, trade characters, and customer service interactions, are clearly recognizable around the world (for good examples, see, which has links to many of its international locations). In McDonald's case, such standardization is one of the reasons why the company has become a symbol to some critics of "American cultural imperialism." Moreover, standardized identity elements can change local consumer cultures. Watson (1997) and his colleagues found that the introduction of McDonald's in five East Asian markets (Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and China) led to higher prevailing standards of food hygiene and quality control, as well as consumer acceptance of queuing, individual ordering, self-provisioning of drinks, napkins and flatware, and eating with hands.
Thus, international marketing managers need to assess the extent to which corporate and brand identity elements are truly globalized -- create invariant consumer impressions across cultures -- and the extent to which they are localized -- create differing consumer impressions across cultures. Given the major global continuities in identity across markets, and given the minor adjustments to specific identity elements purposefully made to create a positive image in local markets, it would seem that consumer interpretations of identity expressions should be reasonably standardized worldwide.
Nevertheless, as shown in Figure 1, company identity expressions are invariably perceived through the filter of cultural frames of reference, which include consumer beliefs, values, norms, customs, lifestyles, competitive standards, and the overall economic situation in the local market. Even when companies adjust their identity expressions to run congruent with local expectations, cultural frames of reference still intervene to shape customer perceptions of the different identity elements. Further complications arise when consumers themselves actively localize fast-food to meet their own needs. Watson's team showed how McDonald's in East Asia served as an after-school hang-out for teenagers, an alcohol-free (and free from overbearing males) refuge for women, and a special place for indulging children. In practice, consumers reinterpret "global" products and services, even after market adaptations, to fit their own local cultural practices and frames of reference.

Research Objectives
This research investigates consumer impressions of KFC brand identity in China and the United States. The fast-food business is a challenging, but very appropriate topic for brand identity research. The organizational model combines corporate and individual branding with both tangible good and service delivery issues. Fast-food restaurants provide memorable experiences, especially for younger customers, that incorporate the sensory output (odors, tastes) generated by more traditional eating establishments. KFC was chosen because it is a well-known brand in the U.S. and, according to a survey by A.C. Nielsen, the most famous international brand in China (People's Daily Online, 2000). Brand names are frequently more important in East Asian countries than in the West. According to Robinson (1995), a single packaged good brand often accounts for 40-50 percent market share. Furthermore, East Asians trust corporate identities more than individual brand identities (Han and Schmitt, 1997).

Figure 1

Corporate and Brand Identity Across Cultures


Frames of

- beliefs

- values

- norms

- customs

- lifestyles

- competitive standards

- level of economic development



- Property
- Product
- Presentation
- Publications



- Property
- Product
- Presentation
- Publications



- Property
- Product
- Presentation
- Publications

The primary objective of the study is to look into the differences, as well as the similarities, between Chinese and American assessments of KFC brand identity. Despite many outward parallels between KFC restaurants in China and the United States, it is hypothesized that this "global" product is, in fact, significantly localized by consumers. Thus, there should be at least some significant differences in how respondents in the two countries perceive KFC properties, products, presentations, and publications.
A secondary objective is to explore differences in fast-food consumption behavior. Watson's (1997) research suggests that the Chinese respondents will be more likely to eat within a KFC restaurant (rather than take food out) and to stay longer per meal than their U.S. counterparts. Chinese women should also spend more time in the restaurant than Chinese men. Since few Chinese own automobiles, take-out is less of an option, and since a KFC meal is relatively more expensive for the Chinese, eating there should be a more deliberate undertaking than it is for Americans. Being part of a more communal, less individualistic culture than that of the U.S., the Chinese also will be more likely to eat KFC food with family and friends.
Thirdly, there will be a preliminary analysis of the extent to which the brand identity elements and their items predict overall customer satisfaction and future patronage, and whether these predictions vary across cultures. In their study of service quality in Germany and the United States, for example, Witkowski and Wolfinbarger (2002) found that the relationship between the different components of service quality -- reliability, empathy, responsiveness, assurance, and tangibles -- and perceptions of overall service quality varied across both cultures and across service settings. In restaurant service, for example, empathy was especially important for Germans. Similarly, it is hypothesized that the different elements of KFC brand identity will have varying effects upon overall customer satisfaction and future patronage.

Research Methods
A four-page questionnaire was drafted in English. It gathered information about eating at KFC (how often, time of day, eating in v. take-out, time spent in restaurant, eating alone v. eating with friends or family), overall satisfaction and likelihood of visiting again, impressions of the four identity elements (eight items each for property and product, five items each for presentation and publications), and respondent demographics, lifestyle, and consumer aspirations. Care was taken to generate items that would have meaning across both cultures. However, some items were created specifically because of their predicted resonance with the Chinese. For example, Schmitt (1994) noted that the spelling and writing of names is crucial in East Asia due to the idiographic nature, and visual processing, of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writing. Thus, two items were created to measure the readability and sound of the KFC/Kentucky Fried Chicken name. A draft version of the questionnaire was pretested with a group of 17 undergraduate business majors and then revised following their suggestions.
The survey instrument was translated into Chinese by two native speakers (a female graduate student and a male professor), and then, for a linguistic equivalence check, back-translated into English by a third native speaker (also a female graduate student). The two English versions were reasonably consistent save for a few small errors that were corrected in the final version. Respondents in either language were able to complete the questionnaire in less than 10 minutes.
Data were collected from 385 student respondents from California State University, Long Beach, and from 410 students at Qingdao University, during April and May, 2001. Students are a reasonable sample for this study. They are heavy consumers of fast food. They are relatively homogeneous across cultures in terms of important demographics -- age, education, social background -- but still differ in terms of language and cultural frames of reference. Lastly, in both countries, but probably more so in rapidly changing China, they are a bellwether of future consumer trends. Only students who had eaten at KFC in the past two years were questioned. In order to get more "typical" snapshot of American young consumers, the California sample excluded visiting international students. All Qingdao University respondents were Chinese.
Qingdao is a port city of about 2.3 million inhabitants (over 7 million in the metropolitan area) located in Shandong Province about half way between Beijing and Shanghai. Qingdao is a "Sister City" of Long Beach. The Qingdao KFC management company was established in 1993 and the first restaurant opened in 1995. There are two KFC restaurants near Qingdao University and eight throughout the entire city. Unlike the United States, most KFCs in China are owned and managed by a corporate subsidiary; the first Chinese franchise restaurant was opened only in 1993 (Iritani, 2001; Trianto, 2001). The authors visited several KFC outlets in Qingdao so that some participant observation would enable more informed interpretation of survey results.
Research Findings
Selected Demographic and Behavioral Comparisons
The Chinese students were slightly younger on average (21.3 years) than the Americans (24.7 years), were more likely to be male (65.6% v. 48.6%), and worked only 2.5 hours a week outside of school compared to 24.7 hours a week for their U.S. counterparts. These results appear typical. In China, the great majority of students attend college directly out of high school and, compared to American students in urban, state universities, devote much more time to their academic rather than outside work. Partly because of China's "one-child" policy, there is a greater than normal proportion of young males in the general population. This bias, combined with traditional attitudes favoring the education of sons over daughters, has led to a preponderance of men in Chinese universities.
The Chinese respondents ate at KFC more frequently than did the Americans -- 6.8 v. 6.1 visits in the past year. The Chinese were more likely to eat within KFC restaurants (88.6% did v. just 8.3% of the U.S. sample) and, when they did, were much more likely to stay in the restaurant 20 minutes or more (90.4% v. 41.0% of the Americans who ate inside). The two KFCs near Qingdao University do not have drive-through facilities and virtually no Chinese students have automobiles. A dinner at KFC is more expensive for the Chinese -- the equivalent of six hours of work in China versus just an hour at minimum wage in the U.S. (Iritani, 2001) -- and this comparatively higher cost would seem to encourage less hurried dining behavior. Interestingly, for those respondents from either country who did eat inside KFC, the percentage dining with friends or family was reasonably close -- 69.3% of the Chinese v. 64.5% of the Americans. Finally, 80.0% of the Chinese, v. 52.6% of the Americans, indicated that they were very or somewhat likely to visit KFC again in the next few months.
In both samples, women were more likely than men to eat at KFC. Whereas Chinese men reported 5.6 visits on average over the past year, Chinese women said they ate there on average 9.2 times. Similarly, the American men made 5.2 visits, compared to 7.0 times for their female counterparts. For the Chinese, but not for the Americans, women were also more likely to stay more than 40 minutes (32.6%) than were men (21.2%). The Chinese gender differences are consistent with Watson's (1997) finding that McDonald's was something of a "safe haven" for Asian women. The fast-food chains do not serve alcohol and, as a consequence, engender more restrained male behavior. KFC is also one of the few restaurants in China that doesn't allow smoking (Iritani, 2001). For the Americans, on the other hand, the higher number of visits by females might result more from family food procurement responsibilities. Many of the U.S. sample female students are married and some have children. Only 2.0% of the American women, versus 1.6% of their male counterparts, stayed more than 40 minutes at KFC.

Brand Identity Analysis and Comparisons
Table 1 shows the item by item comparisons. There were significant differences (p < .01) for 21 out of 26 items. In almost all cases, the Chinese had a more positive brand impression of KFC than the Americans. In particular, they gave much higher marks for KFC furniture and décor and restroom cleanliness (property elements) and were much more likely to rate the food as healthy, well-balanced, and made from fresh ingredients (product elements). The Chinese rated KFC service personnel as more efficient, courteous, and nicely dressed (presentation elements) and found KFC advertising as more attractive and well done (publication element). These divergent scores support the notion that cultural frames of reference intervene between the corporate expressions and consumer impressions. For example, the authors have observed that KFC

Brand Identity Comparisons

Item China U.S.

KFC restaurants look inviting from the outside. 5.36 4.34

KFC restaurants have attractive furniture and décor. 4.96 3.73

KFC restaurants are painted in nice colors. 4.95 4.35

KFC restaurants are kept clean inside. 5.75 4.84

KFC restaurants smell good to me. 5.43 5.01

KFC restaurants have clean restrooms. 5.41 4.21

KFC restaurants have modern-looking equipment. 5.13 4.47

KFC restaurants have convenient operating hours. 5.67 5.02
KFC has a variety of different foods on the menu. 4.92 4.49

KFC food looks appealing to me. 5.11 4.77

KFC food uses fresh ingredients. 5.38 4.06

KFC food is very tasty. 5.20 5.00*

KFC food is healthy for you. 4.68 2.72

KFC food is a well-balanced meal. 4.51 3.27

KFC food is not just a snack for between meals, it's a complete dinner. 5.04 5.09*

KFC food is relatively affordable for me. 4.84 5.08*
KFC provides attractive napkins, placemats, and packaging. 5.19 4.51

KFC employees fill orders efficiently. 5.46 4.47

KFC employees are courteous. 5.50 4.50

KFC employees wear nice clothes at work. 5.84 4.20

KFC is a modern and up-to-date restaurant.
KFC advertising is attractive and well-done. 5.41 4.45

KFC advertising makes me want to go there for food. 4.66 4.02

The KFC/Kentucky Fried Chicken name is nicely printed and easy to read. 5.25 5.39*

The KFC/Kentucky Fried Chicken name has a pleasant sound to it. 5.42 5.10

I like the Colonel Sanders trade character. 5.09 5.02*

Notes: All items measured on a 7-point scale with 1 = strongly disagree to 7 = strongly agree. All items are significantly different at p < .01 except items designated by an asterix, which were not significant.
restrooms in Qingdao, although still below U.S. standards, are far cleaner than those in competing Chinese chains.
The few items where the two samples generally agreed and there were no significant differences included "KFC food is very tasty," "it's a complete dinner," and "I like the Colonel Sanders trade character." Other items, such as "KFC food is relatively affordable for me," have statistically significant differences, but these are not very impressive in terms of the actual numerical averages. Thus, items with no or trivial differences possibly represent the most globalized aspects of KFC brand identity as measured where it counts -- in terms of customer impressions.
Satisfaction, Future Patronage, and Brand Identity
The Chinese respondents were both more satisfied than their American counterparts with going to KFC for food (3.97 v. 3.79 where 1 = very dissatisfied and 5 = very satisfied) and more likely to visit again in the next few months (4.03 v. 3.23 where 1 = very unlikely and 5 = very likely). These country differences are significant at p = .001 for satisfaction and p = .000 for intentions. As might be expected, there is a strong correlation between satisfaction and likely to visit in the next few months: r = .308 for the Chinese, .581 for the Americans, and .491 for the overall sample (all significant at p = .000). The much higher correlation for the U.S. sample may have something to do with American individualism versus Chinese collectivism. When American respondents are satisfied with KFC, they are more likely to go again. Personal feelings take precedence. The Chinese, in contrast, visit KFC more often as part of a group, which might attenuate the tie between their own feelings and behavior. That is, the group imperative comes before the individual preference.
A bivariate correlation analysis was run among the KFC satisfaction item, likely to visit item, and the 26 brand identity items. Table 2 shows the five brand identity items most highly correlated with satisfaction and with likely to visit for the Chinese, American, and overall samples. For all three analyses, a product identity element item, "KFC food is very tasty," was the most highly correlated with satisfaction. For the Chinese, the next three items most highly correlated with satisfaction are all related to the property identity element, followed by a presentation item, "KFC employees are courteous." For the U.S. sample, in contrast, the second and third most highly correlated items are still product items, and the fourth and fifth are presentation related. Turning to the items most correlated with likely to visit, "KFC food is very tasty" remains the most important for all groups. For the Chinese, the next two most highly correlated items are product identity, followed by a property element, and then a publication element. For the U.S. sample, a product item comes second, then a presentation item, a property item, and, lastly another product item.
In addition to the differences in the ranking of items, what is quite obvious is how much more highly correlated are the U.S. brand identity items with both satisfaction and likely to visit. For the Americans, the number one item, "KFC food is very tasty," correlates with satisfaction and likely to visit at, respectively, r = .598 and .523. The comparable coefficients for the Chinese are .295 and .249. Less highly correlated items show a similar pattern of much larger U.S. coefficients. Perhaps brand identity is slightly less of a driving force for the young Chinese consumers than it is for their American counterpart. Also, much of KFC's brand identity


Five Brand Identity Items Most Highly Correlated with KFC Satisfaction

and Likeliness to Visit (all correlations significant at p = .000)

KFC Satisfaction

KFC Likeliness to Visit

Chinese Sample

KFC food is very tasty. .295

KFC restaurants are painted in

nice colors .271

KFC restaurants look inviting from

the outside. .266

KFC restaurants have attractive food

and decor. .237

KFC employees are courteous. .234

Chinese Sample

KFC food is very tasty. .249

KFC food uses fresh ingredients. .225

KFC food looks appealing to me. .215

KFC restaurants look inviting from

the outside. .194

The KFC/Kentucky Fried Chicken

name has a pleasant sound to it. .182

U.S. Sample

KFC food is very tasty. .598

KFC food looks appealing to me. .534

KFC food uses fresh ingredients. .392

KFC advertising makes me want to

go there for food. .379

KFC advertising is attractive and

well done. .330

U.S. Sample

KFC food is very tasty. .523

KFC food looks appealing to me. .491

KFC advertising is attractive and

well-done. .354

KFC restaurants smell good to

me. .344 KFC food uses fresh ingredients. .325

Both Samples

KFC food is very tasty. .467

KFC food looks appealing to me. .387

KFC food uses fresh ingredients. .314

KFC restaurants look inviting from

the outside. .297

KFC advertising makes me want to

go there for food. .294

Both Samples

KFC food is very tasty. .404

KFC food looks appealing to me. .386

KFC food uses fresh ingredients. .373

KFC advertising is attractive and

well-done. .351

KFC advertising makes me want to

go there for food. .341

expression in both countries has deep American roots, which should make it more pertinent to the U.S. sample. Lastly, the questionnaire was developed in English and pretested with young consumers in the U.S., methods which probably impart an American flavor despite care in translation.

Conclusions, Limitations, and Future Directions
Except for a handful of items, the Chinese young consumers in this study have more favorable brand identity impressions of KFC than a comparable group of Americans. This persistent scale difference can be explained by differences in the cultural frames of reference. Compared to what too many Chinese eating establishments have been offering in terms of décor, service, and customer amenities, the relatively new KFC restaurants make a very attractive alternative. KFC's modernity and association with American culture may also add to its allure. Finally, KFC in China is a relatively new enterprise still in the "growth stage" of its product life cycle. In the U.S., in contrast, KFC has been around for a while, has generally modest dining facilities, costs the consumer relatively little, and, fairly or not, carries the opprobrium of being unhealthy, high-calorie, high fat "junk food."
Another type of cultural influence, a "courtesy bias," may also contribute to the marked differences in brand impressions across the two samples. The Chinese respondents may have been trying to please the investigators by providing the answers they think are expected of them. They may also have been trying to be positive about an America-based fast-food company. All of the questionnaires used the California State University, Long Beaach letterhead in order to lend credibility to the instrument and to be consistent across samples, but this decision may have further communicated a desirable foreignness to the Chinese respondents.
However, eagerness to please does not explain away the other major finding, namely, that the Chinese brand identity impressions were consistently less highly correlated with satisfaction and likeliness to visit than were the American impressions. This result points toward a strong localization influence, perhaps the consequence of a more communal culture or some other factor such as a different aesthetic sensibility.
The analyses presented herein are obviously preliminary. Further examination of the data is in progress and includes principal component factor analysis to determine if the questionnaire items actually measure four separate brand identity elements, and if this perceptual structure holds up across the two samples. These factor scores will then be used to predict the important satisfaction and likely to visit again variables.
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