China's Women to Watch

McDonald's Christine Xu Is Helping Turning China Into a Nation of Big Mac Eaters

Shanghai Native Says Her Innate Understanding of Local Consumers Is an Advantage

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McDonald's faces a variety of challenges in China, a country of 1.3 billion potential Big Mac eaters. The fast-food industry as a whole is slowing down as the economy cools.

Operating costs are rising. Food safety remains a concern among consumers. And the fast feeder trails market leader KFC, an early entrant in China with more locations and a highly localized menu.

Christine Xu
Christine Xu

But McDonald's is expanding rapidly, operating about 1,500 stores in China and aiming to increase to 2,000 by the end of 2013 by opening a new store almost every day.

Christine Xu, VP-marketing for McDonald's in China, brings a native's perspective to creating emotional links with consumers during this period of aggressive growth. While many top marketers at multinationals are foreigners or overseas Chinese, Ms. Xu is from Shanghai and says her innate understanding of local consumers is an advantage.

"Everything starts from insights. Being a native, you know the essence behind the culture," she said.

As an example, since Ms. Xu was promoted to her post in June 2011, McDonald's has launched a campaign to promote its beef products in a market where consumers tend to prefer chicken and pork. The "Manly Men" campaign by TBWA stemmed from insights that Chinese women today are often tough and domineering.

"The men have to step up a little bit," she said. "We said 100% manly men eat 100% beef. ... Not meaning that you are a muscle man, but you have a strong heart, for instance."

The ads' content varied based on regional attitudes toward masculinity. In Beijing, they focused on bonds of brotherhood between guys. In the southern boomtown of Shenzhen, a "manly man" was portrayed as a scrappy business go-getter. In Shanghai, he was shown cooking for his family.

In addition to promotions, Ms. Xu is helping develop innovations in areas such as breakfast, McCafe and McDelivery to ensure sustainable future growth, said Kenneth Chan, CEO of McDonald's China. (Delivery service is available mostly in Asia.)

It's a balancing act to adapt the McDonald's global promise of "simple, easy enjoyment" with local expectations of a little magic from a well-known international brand.

"Christine has been helping us create a brand that is aspirational but accessible. With her local insights into our customer needs, she has been able to marry our business model with the local Chinese culture and is making our brand more positively differentiated every day," Mr. Chan said.