Chat show gives McDonald's healthy lifestyle platform

And other news in Greater China

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BEIJING--As part of its growth strategy in mainland China, McDonald’s Corp. has developed a live online chat series with the popular portal Sina and, a web site launched by McDonald's in the mainland earlier this year. Consumers can interact with leading sport, entertainment and business figures.

The first one-hour episode on Aug. 1 in Beijing will feature Houston Rockets basketball star and Shanghai native Yao Ming, who signed a multi-year global partnership deal with McDonald's in 2004. The monthly series, called “Passion for Life,” will continue until the end of this year. The second episode will feature Asian pop star Wang Leehom.

The online initiative has "no target age group," said McDonald's spokesman George Gu in Shanghai, "but I guess most [participants will be] young adults," the country's largest group of web surfers as well as pop culture fans.

The program is part of the company’s efforts to provide consumer-focused education and encourage active, balanced lifestyles. But it can also viewed as a mechanism to ward off potential concerns about the nutritional content of fast food in general in China.

So far, the criticism aimed at fast food companies such as McDonald’s in the U.S. and other countries where child obesity levels are on the rise has not affected the U.S. fast food marketer in China. In fact, McDonald's has been praised by the Chinese government and local consumers for its approach to hygiene and food safety and quality, in contrast to local food outlets in a nation rife with food-related scams and scandals. Last year, for example, the China Cuisine Association, an extension of the national health ministry, named McDonald’s the “gold standard” for all restaurants in China, a prestigious label.

McDonald’s already has 760 restaurants in China and aims to reach at least 1,000 outlets by the start of the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. Arch rival Yum Brand’s KFC chain has more than 1,200 fast-food outlets in the mainland and is also expanding aggressively.

At the same time, China’s economic growth has led to busier lifestyles and more disposable income, leading to less healthy eating. Fifteen percent of China’s population is now considered to be overweight and nearly 7% are obese, according to Peter Tan, McCann Erickson’s Shanghai-based national director of consumer insight & market intelligence in China.

Eager to maintain its positive public image, McDonald’s is taking initiatives to position itself as an arbiter of good health and nutrition, most recently with the online chat series. The strategy was introduced last year following the arrival of Guy Russo, who relocated to Shanghai as president, Greater China from Sydney, where he was the company’s CEO, Australia.

Mr. Russo transformed Australia from a trouble spot into one of the company’s most innovative and successful markets in two years. Australia had the second-highest obesity levels in the world after the U.S. and until he took the reins, the chain suffered from public doubts about food quality and health issues. The Australian native addressed those problems with a bold quality campaign and invited customers and the media to look behind-the-scenes at McDonald’s operations. He added healthier menu items like yoghurt, low-fat sandwiches and salads. Under his direction in China, McDonald’s has taken a similar stance. Menu changes, for example, include offering calcium-enriched yogurt as an alternative to fries in Happy Meals.

Pernod Ricard expands its relationship with Tequila in China
SHANGHAI--Pernod Ricard has appointed Tequila, the direct marketing arm of TBWA Worldwide, to handle its below-the-line marketing business for Royal Salute in China. Tequila already works with two other brands in the French spirits marketer's portfolio, China's leading Scotch whisky brand, Chivas, and Martell, the market's No. 2 cognac label.

Pernod Ricard has also awarded the CRM business for its Martell Elite Club to Tequila, which was previously handled by Grey Relationship Marketing (GRM). According to David Hunt, Tequila's managing director in China, the agency has been asked to “reengineer” the club and develop a fully-integrated campaign that leverages all Martell Brand activities. Its sister agency TBWA already handles above-the-line creative for Martell Cordon Bleu, VSOP, XO and Noblige products in China.
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