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MultiNational Corporations Are Not American, European, Chinese, or Japanese

Corporations are culturally polymorphous “I am a citizen of the world,” I’ve heard some travelers exclaim on occasion. By citizen of the world, they mean they are just at home anywhere on the planet as they are in the country they came from, that they are regarded as part of the landscape wherever they go, [...]

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Corporations are culturally polymorphous

“I am a citizen of the world,” I’ve heard some travelers exclaim on occasion. By citizen of the world, they mean they are just at home anywhere on the planet as they are in the country they came from, that they are regarded as part of the landscape wherever they go, that they have transcended the bounds of borders and are de-politicized biological entities roaming about a modern Pangaea.

“I am no more modern than ancient, no more French than Chinese, and the idea of a native country – that is to say, the imperative to live on one bit of ground marked red or blue on the map and to hate the other bits in green or black – has always seemed to me narrow-minded, blinkered and profoundly stupid.” -Gustave Flaubert

It is my impression that this is not possible, there are no citizens of the world. But, according to the definition of the term, multinational corporations seem to be shooting for global citizen status, at least in regards to being inter-cultural shape-shifters.

There is KFC in America too!

The last time I was in China I did a stint of studying Chinese medicine. My instructor was from San Francisco but lived in China, married a Chinese woman, and had a son who lived out the first years of his life without visiting the land of his father. Eventually, the family decided to take a trip to the USA. Upon arrival, his son saw the familiar sign of a KFC restaurant. “Look dad!” he exclaimed, “they have KFC in America too!”

KFC is now just as much Chinese as it is American.

Kraft buys Vegemite

“I don’t buy Vegemite anymore,” a grumpy Australian once said to me in Guatemala, “because they were bought out by an American company.”

He was referring to Kraft, a multinational corporation started by a Canadian which is currently owned by shareholders from all over the world. I did not see what he was getting at: Kraft is now just as much Australian as it is American.

The myth of international American companies

Using the term “American company” when presenting a dichotomy between a local business (of the country we are in) and a company of American origins is now a misnomer. The only American companies that exist are those which operated exclusively in the United States which are not trading on the public market. Multinational corporations are now just as much at home anywhere on the planet as they are in the country they came from, they become a part of the landscape wherever they go, that have transcended the bounds of borders and are de-politicized commercial entities buying and selling in a modern Pangaea.

Multinational corporations are traded on the public market, and are owned by shareholders from every corner of the globe. Attaching a nationality to a corporation is a false position, these companies are global.

Photo: commons.wikipedia.org

These corporations have now become so entrenched in the cultural psyches of the people of this world that there is often no differentiation made between a company that was started in France, one that was started in the USA, one from China, one from Germany, or one which had its origins in the very country in which it sells its wares. The foreign/national commercial dichotomy is now a very blurred line, we are growing accustom to the one world commercial system. Like my Chinese medicine professor’s kid, the consumers of the next generation will not have any illusions that the places they shop and eat at one time had origins on the other side of the world. The global is now local, we have adapted to the commercial Pangaea.

In the United Kingdom, Walmart goes by Asda; in Japan, it is Seiyu; in India, it is called Best Price. In China, Walmart, Tesco (UK), and Carrefour (France), are as much a part of the landscape as any noodle joint. It is not my impression that customers go to these department stores and think of the United States of America, France, or England, as they are now thoroughly a part of their own modern commercial heritage. KFC and McDonalds have also been internationally absorbed on a similar level. The same goes for many other corporations that have now spread throughout the globe in the foray of the past two decades.

The key to any corporation sprouting fertile roots in a new country is not shoving an imperial culture in their new consumer pools face, but by adapting to the commercial culture and finding a unique niche within it.

Walmart failed in Germany and South Korea because they could not adapt to the commercial culture, but they thrive in China because the found a niche with middle and upper class clientele. In China, Walmart is a ritzy place to shop, as they exploit the exact opposite customer profile which they go for in the USA — they adapted and thrived.

McDonalds is not the same restaurant abroad as the ones in the USA. The main structure is similar, but what is served is made to match the local palate. McDonalds in China is now distinctly Chinese, McDonalds in Mexico are very Mexican, the ones in Europe very European. The McDonalds that the people know in the USA is just the American version of a corporation that learned magnificently how to shape shift with the dominant culture they operate in: whether that be a highway rest stop in middle America or in downtown Mexico city.

Early on, it seems, multinational corporations learned that selling Americanism or force-feeding American habits (or that of their country of origin) would not get them farther than being a temporary trend for hip youngsters feigning at Western style or for the middle class looking for the next new thing. To be successful abroad, multinational corporations had to become local. Or, more accurately, become global. Like this, businesses wrap their tendrils around the earth, adapting marketing strategies to hit the key points of local cultures, and becoming as polymorphous as any self-professed global citizen wishes they could be.


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Filed under: Economics, Globalization

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

4 comments… add one

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  • rob November 14, 2011, 10:14 am

    good article Wade. thanks

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    • Wade Shepard November 14, 2011, 10:59 am

      Thanks for the feedback, Rob, truly appreciated!

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  • Gar November 15, 2011, 9:31 pm

    Hi Wade,

    I believe you are correct. People cannot be “citizens of the world” but their Frankenstein creation, corporations, can be.

    On the other hand, the way the power structure is now in every country, corporate is so intertwined with government power, corporations are usually identifiable as being a “citizen” in the country where they have the most power.

    One thing is sure, in whatever country corporations do business, or how they adapt culturally to do business in different locations, their motivation is the same in all cultures – the bottom line of the next financial statement.

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    • Wade Shepard November 16, 2011, 1:43 pm

      There is something to be learned from the cultural research that corporations do while moving into new areas. It is truly an amazing field of study if you take the bones of what they are doing and apply it towards other goals. I’ve known people whose job it was to go into places, study the culture, then report back to corporations on how best to sell their products there. Anthropologists have never been so well paid haha. It is real interesting how these corporations take anthropological data and really use it — even when it means going against the business models they’ve used in the past. If only this applied anthropology could be applied towards other ends . . . But, ultimately, commerce and, in the end, capitalism is a concept that just about every culture in the world can grasp, understand, and apply, so I guess the corporations have a running start.

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