In the bright, air-conditioned atmosphere of Delhi’s Ambiance Mall, Taco Bell emits a daring, urban vibe in the corner of the food court. Its walls are covered with bright-colored graffiti tags naming exciting menu items: taco, chalupa, burrito, nachos. The names are interspersed with hashtags and taglines challenging customers to try new flavors. Alongside the invitations to “dare” something new, are familiar words such as ‘roti’, ‘paneer’ and ‘masala’. If it weren’t for the shining bell on the sign outside the door and the Taco Bell brand name plastered on almost every surface of the restaurant, this space would be difficult to recognize for an American as a part of the well-known Taco Bell franchise. When you order, the server asks for your spice preference and brings your food directly to your table. Half of the menu is vegetarian (stuffed with beans, potatoes, fajita vegetables or paneer) and the other half is different preparations of chicken.
In the summer of 2015, I tried Taco Bell in India for the first time. I have always had a bit of a guilty soft-spot for American fast food brands in India. Something about seeing these familiar names and dishes reconstrued for an Indian audience with a new masala flavor has always felt like a particularly satisfying synecdoche for the way we all find ourselves translated and reinterpreted in the new context of a different country. When I first came to India in 2011, McDonald’s, Dominoes, Pizza Hut, Subway and KFC were already well-established brands. Since then, I’ve seen the re-imagination of Starbucks, Burger King and Taco Bell. Though this re-imagination happens in different ways for different brand names (for instance, Starbucks arguably tastes more or less the same in every country), it always happens, even if such reinterpretations only exists in the way the product is perceived and used socially in its new environment.
Taco Bell represents an extreme case of re-imagination. When Burger King came to India, this particular genre of Fast Food chain (the burger restaurant) was already well established, from international chains like McDonald’s, to roadside burger vendors who serve their potato patties on a bun with a side of chutney. Similarly, India already had a number of coffee shops before Starbucks arrived (not to mention a tradition of filter coffee consumption in the South), so there was already a model that the chain could follow to make their goods recognizable to an Indian audience (by the addition of sugary ‘cold-coffee’ as a menu-item, for instance). Americanized Mexican fast food chains were not familiar to most Indians however when Taco Bell started establishing itself. The first Taco Bell was in Bangalore in 2010, where members of the Tech industry, who had studied or worked in the States, were arguably at least familiar with the chain. However, as the franchise expanded, it faced the same problem that all new businesses face when marketing to new audiences: how do you make a product intelligible and desirable to someone who is not familiar with it?
On the surface, this seems to be a question of new and old, foreign and local. The terms of globalization are often cast as such. In fact, McDonald’s and Starbucks are sometimes argued to represent two models of global marketing: one embracing the local, the other using the foreign as its selling point. However, the relationship between new and old is dialectic and generative, one of new olds and old news, foreign-locals and local-foreigns. The labels of foreign, global, local and new are constantly in a process of reinvention as the situations they describe change. Taco Bell provides a lens through which we can see the processes through which the marketing of American fast food chains is both limited and bolstered by its foreignness. Though the results and the life-histories of processes of global marketing vary widely, this example shows us how products (such as fast food, employees and cellphones) are both changed by and change the contexts in which they are marketed.
Taco Bell’s ad campaign originally was one which sought to make its food understandable to the Indian market. I remember when I first went to Taco Bell in Delhi (about a year ago), there were signs and placemats that explained the different menu items in terms of local foods. A burrito was “a roll [as in kathi roll] like you have never seen before” and a tortilla was a roti [the Indian wheat flat-bread]. Here the foreign made itself intelligible through reference to the local cuisine. Though these efforts were less evident this year, as there was no longer any dictionary of Americanized Mexican fast food readily available in the restaurant, these processes are still evident in product descriptions on the Taco Bell India webpage. A chalupa is described as a “crispy taco-shaped pita bread[something more familiar than chalupa shell]…”. There were also spray-painted tags of “tortilla=roti” on the sides of chairs and tables in the restaurant itself.
Along with these arguably local references, themes of newness and daring were common among the decorations in the store. “If you never do, you’ll never know” was painted on the side of my table. On the Taco Bell India webpage, in the “Do & Dares” section, they describe their goal as providing food both with local ingredients and utilizing multiple flavors to “dare to challenge your taste buds”. With these scripts and the graffiti motifs on the walls, Taco Bell is marketing the new and foreign aspects of their product.
Further, they introduced fusion food items that would be intelligible in terms of their flavors and ingredients. Enter, the Tikka Masala Burrito! This is a burrito filled with paneer or chicken tikka masala. Advertisement for this fusion burrito referred to it as “the rebel side of tikka masala”. Similarly, there is a new product at Indian outlets called the “Kathitto” which is an overt fusion of a Burrito and a Kathi roll [a traditional street food that is especially famous in Kolkata], wrapped in a paratha and filled with “Mexican fillings”. For this product to be a success both burritos and kathi rolls have to have been already established as food-items for the customers.
What we can learn from these marketing strategies is that even newness is always packaged in a somewhat familiar way. The very concept of foreign fast-food brands is well established in India. This concept organizes how Taco Bell approaches its expansion. It offers value meals similar to McDonalds, it plays with Tikka Masala flavors in foreign packages. The menu-items are familiarized by drawing comparisons with already familiar food items. Once they are established, new combinations, like the Kathitto, become possible. In order to account for this we, as scholars, have to move beyond the global/local dichotomy. We also have to treat the local-global, or how “global” itself is conceptualized by consumers. Global isn’t an attribute of the product inherently, it is an association that the consumer makes. It becomes a selling point and is embedded in local networks of meaning that are associated with global products. How a “global” product gets taken up by its consumer is always effected by how “global” is understood for the local population. Foreign foods become localized, new Indian taco chains have become more popular across Delhi.
In addition to this local-global imagination, there is also a level of analysis that might be called the global-local. The multinational corporation itself is limited in its ability to imagine the local perceptions of its brand. Therefore, global companies like Taco Bell must, though market research and trial and error, interpret local tastes and perceptions to make them intelligible for corporate employees who are not familiar with the cultures they are selling to. They construct ad campaigns based on their perceptions of the local consumer and based on how they understand the local consumer to interact with global brands.
Taco Bell is therefore suspended in negotiations between different parties and their understandings of each other in terms of ‘local’, ‘global’ and ‘foreign’. By opening up our understanding of globalization to include not just modals of “global” and “local” but also the feedback that exists between these models in different contexts and locations, we see that it is not a dichotomy, but a chain of interactions and feed back loops that expand through time and space. These chains of meaning make products like the Kathitto and the Tikka Masala Burrito not just a possibility, but a manifestation of the models that give rise to them. The supposed “transfer” of knowledge that occurs through globalization is, in fact, a series of actions on the part of the consumer and the marketer. It is a culmination of actions that sometimes more congruent understandings of words like “burrito” and “tortilla”, lending a new level of truth to the writing on the side of my table: “If you never do, you’ll never know”.