The sharp sting of western culture hit me while walking through Kuta in Bali. KFC, Starbucks, and McDonald’s waste littered the streets in an eerie, quick service sameness—all the fast-food hallmarks I sadly associate with home.
I should have known better than to picture an ideal backpacking trip filled with forested volcanic mountains, iconic rice paddies, and temples—vacationing with preconceived expectations is always a losing game. But besides feeling disappointed, seeing Starbucks and McDonald’s as backdrop to Bali’s beaches unsettled me—I felt like I was staring at a blueprint for a globally homogenous future comprised of formulaic shops and restaurants.
Formulas don’t always add up
Globalization isn’t a new concept. People and organizations have been influencing one another over long distances for thousands of years, often unequally, and often resulting in cultural hegemony of one group over others. Think of the rise of Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan and their merging and governance of parts of Eurasia. Today, with so much media clout, western culture influences a large part of the world. With KFC’s bucolic colonel patron and McDonald’s golden arches always in sight, Kuta felt like an alternate version of a California beach town.
As corporations grow and the world seems to shrink amongst emerging technology, it has become easier for brands to extend their global reach. Unfortunately, that usually entails relying on previous formulas of success—chain stores can all but pop up overnight. To put things in perspective, there are 14,344 McDonald's within the U.S. and 21,914 restaurants internationally, and out of 19,420 KFC’s, 15,029 of those are located outside the U.S.
Communities are a fundamental human need, but it’s hard to feel a sense of belonging if your neighborhood feels like an algorithm for enterprise culture. While it’s inevitable that trends sweep the globe and cultures meld in our hyper-connected world, consumers are noticing when brands slap a formulaic model down without taking locality into account. These days customers all over the world are asking more of brands—they’re asking for personalization and a sense of community. Take a major apparel retailer from a 2016 study conducted by Harvard Business Review—they discovered that a desire to feel a sense of belonging is a key emotional motivator for customers to buy. The retailer implemented an emotional-connection-based strategy and, as a result, reduced customer attrition rates from 37 percent to 33 percent and increased customer advocacy six percent.
Communities are a fundamental human need, but it's hard to feel a sense of belonging if your neighborhood feels like an algorithm for enterprise culture.
Chain stores may be convenient to construct, and they might create jobs and economic growth in other parts of the world, but that can often come at the cost of culture and a sense of community or belonging. That’s why it’s up to growing corporations to think about how their brand affects the communities they operate in and the lives of individuals.
Glocalization: Going global by thinking local
According to Business of Fashion, Uniqlo, a global retailer, decided to mix things up by using the top two floors of their six-story clothing emporium in London to showcase local culture and to host cultural events, including a talk by British Olympic gold medal-winner Victoria Pendleton.
John C Jay, president of Uniqlo’s global creative, said, “The idea is to have a space devoted to culture that is unique and relevant and brings something back to the community. To be a good citizen, to be a good neighbor in the neighborhood,” he continued, “I had to work with local talent and local businesses. The store is the beginning of a deeper focus on our flagships and how they express global ideas, but in a more local way.”
Beyond contributing to the community, brands that go global by thinking local are more likely to drive growth. Uniqlo’s decision to host Victoria Pendleton gave them great brand exposure as people walked through the store to get to the talk. “The goal is to be relevant,” Jay explained to BoF. “We are a Japanese company trying to be relevant around the world and we’re going to do that by joining forces with many different cultures around the world. In order to be a great global company, you have to be a great local company, because you have to touch people where they live.” When a brand resonates with the people in the community they put a stake in, the company is bound to grow a loyal, lasting following, as well as avenues for feedback, and improve their bottom line.
When a brand resonates with the people in the community they put a stake in, the company is bound to grow a loyal, lasting following, as well as avenues for feedback, and improve their bottom line.
Take Nike, for example. In an effort to localize, Nike has positively influenced communities through their branded running clubs where fellow runners meet on weekly guided and paced runs. With these clubs, the company has built customer loyalty through powerful experiences and connections and, as a result, they’ve nurtured more meaningful relationships with the 44 cities they operate in around the world. Similarly, Lululemon’s grassroots community of cultural ambassadors helps foster and influence health and mindfulness on the ground level, person-to-person. In exchange for brand evangelization and teaching an in-store yoga class, ambassadors gain a community, leadership skills, and discounted gear.
Building a sense of community
Companies will continue to grow and expand—it’s the nature of humanity to progress. But it’s important to remain mindful about how we’re doing so. Uniqlo, Nike, and Lululemon are real examples of companies growing their bottom-line by mindfully and positively contributing to local communities.
As Marshal Cohen of NPD Group said, “By engaging with the local community and being part of the lifestyle of the consumer, you’re creating a connection, you’re creating experience, you’re creating loyalty. And if I can connect with you as a lifestyle partner, I now have the opportunity to sell to you on impulse as well as necessity.” Growing a business doesn’t have to be separate from creating and contributing to a strong local community.
And while brands should keep in mind how they contribute to local communities, communities should also keep in mind they have autonomy to shape their own growth. In a desire for locality, San Francisco enacted a law in 2004 where “formula” retail stores and restaurants need special approval from the city’s Planning Commission in order to open. This meant a limit to big-box corporations, fast food restaurants, and chain stores. As a result, San Francisco, with its eclectic assortment of shops, has remained a place of character.
The city’s desire for distinctive neighborhoods colored with independent, unique stores is just one example of a larger call for locality and a sense of community and connection. As we embrace the future of a heavily connected world, let’s not forget local identities. There’s a certain beauty in the melding of cultures, and as we shrink space and time and dissolve borders, I hope businesses and communities alike will focus on creating a more unique and personal world.
As for Bali, I remember quickly vacating Kuta and heading inland towards Ubud where the locals were proud of their community and culture and eager to show it off. I felt the weight of a homogenous future lessening, and when I flew home, I was excited to share bits and pieces of Indonesian culture with my own community.