McDonald’s, You’re like Framily

May 23, 2015 § Leave a comment


Growing up on a farm, we didn’t eat out much, but I seem to remember enjoying a few Quarter Pounders with fries during my high-school days.

Then, during my time as a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, my go-to lunch was a salad with a side of fries at the basement McDonald’s on Lowery Mall, across from the library. When I took my daughter for a campus visit to MU a few weeks ago, our student tour guide (who did an excellent job, I might add) pointed out where the McDonald’s used to be. He said at one time it was the highest-grossing McDonald’s location in the US. In the 80s, when I was there, we heard it was the busiest McDonald’s in the world. I think both statements are part of a Columbia urban legend—though I’d love someone to prove me wrong with some documentation.

When my family lived in Taiwan, we found McDonald’s in every city. That was especially welcome when we first arrived and couldn’t speak Chinese. It’s a lot easier to ask for a “Number 5” than to learn the vocabulary for ordering à la carte.

655846832_58ee159407_zMcDonald’s was popular with the locals, too, especially high school kids. It was common to see them gather there to study or work on class projects. It was a new experience for us to see young people in that group-centered culture pour all their french fries into a pile and share them together.

McDonald’s certainly is a global juggernaut. According to the company website, their more than 33,000 restaurants in over 100 countries serve over 69 million people each day. But there’s more to McDonald’s than just huge numbers. In honor of the chain’s 75th anniversary this year, Reader’s Digest ran a list of “75 Mind-blowing Facts.” Here are my favorites:

#2. The first McDonald’s drive-thru—in Sierra Vista, Arizona—didn’t open until 1975.

#22-22. French fries, McDonald’s best-selling item, were added to the menu in 1949. Before that, it was potato chips.

#50. As the result of a 1973 lawsuit, McDonald’s paid Sid and Marty Kroftt $1 million because the brothers claimed that McDonaldland had stolen the “concept and feel” of their Saturday-morning TV show H.R. Pufnstuf. (Remember that one?)

#58. Giving away (selling?) 1.5 billion toys each year in its Happy Meals makes McDonalds’ the largest distributer of toys in the world. (OK, that’s one of those “huge numbers.”)

#60. One out of every eight workers in the U.S. has at some time had a job at McDonald’s.

#66. Have you heard of the “Big Mac Index”? It was developed by The Economist in 1986 to use the local cost of a Big Mac to compare economies around the world.

I used to tell my Asian college-age friends that I don’t actually like McDonald’s, that most people in the US don’t actually like McDonald’s. But here’s what happens: You’re in a van with a bunch of young people on a trip and you ask them where they want to stop and eat and they say “Anywhere but McDonald’s” and they name other possibilities but when you exit the highway you don’t see any of the places they suggested and you’re running out of time and you decide to eat at the next place you see and—guess what?—it’s a McDonald’s. There’s always a McDonald’s close by, so that’s where you stop. It’s just too convenient.

This guy notwithstanding, McDonald’s burgers don’t garner much praise. In fact, when readers of Consumer Reports rated the hamburgers of 21 fast-food chains, they put the ones from McDonald’s dead last. The magazine called them a “Mc-disappointment.” When our local McDonald’s in Taipei ran out of hamburgers one day (I kid you not), maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

But there are those “world-famous fries.” McDonald’s calls them “golden on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside.” I don’t disagree. And a whole lot of other people seem to be on board, as well.

Mark Eichenlaub, a graduate student in physics, decided to figure out just how many french fries McDonald’s has sold. He used the formula


and came up with the figure “4 trillion, give or take a few.” I have a hard time following his detailed explanation (he lost me when I saw that squiggly S-thing before the numbers), but I’m pretty sure his estimate doesn’t even count fries sold outside the US.

Of course, McDonald’s gets knocked for a lot of things besides what’s on their menu. For instance, right now they’re the target of protests over low wages. Sometimes their negatives are symptomatic of the ills of American culture, but they’re magnified with McDonald’s because of the franchise’s large scale. And abroad, their ubiquity and visibility often make them a symbol of Western encroachment.

McDonald’s does give us plenty of reasons not to be “Lovin’ it.”

But again . . . there are those fries.

My second oldest son graduated from university last week. He drove about seven hours round trip to pick up my mother so she could attend the ceremony. The next day I took her back home, with an extra hour added on each way. After I dropped her off, she was worried that I’d fall asleep on the way back, but I told her I’d pull over and rest if I got tired.

4011734182_dc8d2f9bde_zA couple hours from home, in Lebanon, MO, I decided to stop and get something to eat. I parked at a McDonald’s, to go inside and stretch my legs and to use the free wifi. That and I got an order of fries.

The lady at the counter greeted me with “Welcome back.” How many businesses can say that to every customer and rarely, if ever, be wrong?

Sounds like framily. And when I say “framily,” I’m thinking of the Sprint commercials with their odd collection of characters—Ronald McDonald, Grimace, Hamburglar, Mayor McCheese, Captain Crook and the rest of the citizens of McDonaldland. It’s an imperfect, dysfunctional framily at times, but it’s still framily.

In the Lebanon McDonald’s, the fries were good, as they nearly always are.

There’s something to be said about consistency. And there’s something to be said about always being close by.


(Daryl Chen and Brooke Wanser, “75 Mind-Blowing Facts about McDonald’s to Celebrate Its 75th Anniversary,” Reader’s Digest; “Best and Worst Fast-Food Restaurants in America,” Consumer Reports, July 2014; Mark Eichenlaub, “How Many Fries Has McDonald’s Served?Quora)

[photos: “McDonald’s,” by Mike Mozart, used under a Creative Commons license; “4 Combos Fries Mix,” by Shippou, used under a Creative Commons license; “plexi • burger.dude,” by Don Shall, used under a Creative Commons license]

Why Is IKEA One of the Most “Meaningful” Companies in the World? 10 Reasons

November 8, 2014 § 4 Comments


What is it that makes IKEA a global phenomenon? Is it the DIY furniture? Is it the maze-like stores with free childcare? Is it the lingonberry jam?

Whatever the cause, the behemoth that is IKEA is not only the biggest producer and manufacturer of furniture in the world but also the most “meaningful.”

According to Paris-based Havas Media, IKEA ranks #6 on its list of “Meaningful Brands,” the result of a global survey measuring how people think companies benefit their “personal and collective well-being.” (Three years ago, IKEA was #1.)

(“Meaningful Brands,” Havas Media; Jennifer Rooney, “Ikea, Google, Nestle Tops in ‘Meaningful’ Impact: Survey,” Forbes, November 8, 2011)

Here’s my list of 10 things that give IKEA meaning in today’s world.

1. It’s big, Big, BIG

As of October 15, IKEA has 364 stores in 46 countries (map). These include the two stores in Taipei, where I was first introduced to the chain, and the newest store in the US, which opened last month in Meriam, KS, about two hours from my home.

(“Bringing the IKEA Concept Worldwide,” Inter IKEA Systems B.V.)

2. It has an “effect” named after it

IKEA is known for it’s “flat box” furniture, bought in a box at the store and assembled at home by the customer. While this can cause frustrations, especially if a piece is missing, it has it’s upsides. Researchers from Harvard, Yale, and Duke found that when people put effort into creating something, they like it more, even valuing their creations over others of higher quality. They dub this the “IKEA effect.”

(Michael Norton, “The IKEA Effect: When Labor Leads to Love,” Harvard Business Review, 2009)

3. Now it’s a kind of diplomacy, as well

It’s too early to say for sure, but I think the term IKEA diplomacy is going to catch on, too. Just a little over a week ago, Sweden recognized Palestinian statehood. This was followed by a swift condemnation from Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who said, “Sweden must understand that relations in the Middle East are much more complicated than self-assembly furniture at Ikea.”

“I will be happy to send Israeli FM Lieberman an Ikea flat pack to assemble,” responded the Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom. “He’ll see it requires a partner, co-operation, and a good manual.”

(Inna Lazareva, “Ikea and Peace in the Middle East,” The Telegraph, November 1, 2014)

4. IKEA’s catalog is published in biblical proportions

Each year, IKEA prints millions of its catalogs each year. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2012 the company planned to distribute 208 million, which is estimated to be more than twice the amount of Bibles that are produced each year.

In 2012, the IKEA catalog made news when the company removed images of women from photos in the version distributed in Saudi Arabia. IKEA later apologized.

And September marked the announcement of the 2015 catalog in the highly innovative—dare I say groundbreakingform of the “bookbook.” Genius.

(Jens Hansard, “IKEA’s New Catalogs: Less Pine, More Pixels,” Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2012; “Is the IKEA Catalogue Being Distributed in More Prints than the Bible?” Skeptics Stack Exchange; Ben Quinn, “IKEA Apologises over Removal of Women from Saudi Arabia Catalogue,” The Guardian, October 1, 2012; )

5. Its product names are just so Kwïrki

If you’ve shopped at an IKEA or browsed a catalog, then you know that each product carries some kind of Swedish—or Swedish-ish—name. They often sound odd (a shelf named Ekby Bjärnmum), sometimes funny (a soil block is called Kokosnöt), and sometimes unfortunate (I’ll let you Google for these yourself).

Of course, this isn’t just a Swedish-to-English issue. The Wall Street Journal reports that before opening a store in Thailand, IKEA put together a team with the sole purpose of catching names that sound off-color to the Thai ear, such as Redalen (a bed) and Jättebra (a plant pot), both of which sound like Thai sexual terms.

And then there’s Lufsig, IKEA’s stuffed wolf toy. In December of last year, an anti-government protestor in Hong Kong threw one at Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Cy Leung during a town-hall meeting. The man tossed the toy because Leung is called “wolf” by his critics. The action took on more meaning since the Cantonese name for the stuffed toy sounds like a crude sexual term in that language. Lfusigs became a must-have item and soon sold out.

(James Hookway, “IKEA’s Products Make Shoppers Blush in Thailand,” The Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2012; Per Lilies, “Stuffed IKEA Toy Becomes Offensive Anti-Government Symbol in Hong Kong,” Time, December 10, 2013)

6. Name another furniture store that’s known for it’s food

According to The Wall Street Journal, IKEA’s food division is on par in sales with Panera’s and Arby’s. And the cornerstone of its in-store restaurants and grocery products is the humble Swedish meatball, of which they sell around 150 million each year.

The meatballs are nothing fancy, just really, really good. Here’s how they’re described on the company website, in typical Scandinavian understatement:

Meatballs, frozen
Key features
– Meatballs are minced meat formed into round balls and then fried. Serve with boiled potatoes, lingonberry jam and cream sauce.

Even after its meatballs were recalled across Europe early last year, the store’s culinary reputation survived. Why the recall? Trace amounts of horse meat were discovered in a batch made by a Swedish supplier. If that news still gives you pause, have patience. Next year IKEA plans to roll out meatless vegetarian meatballs.

In the UK, IKEA even brews its own line of dark lager and regular brew beers.

Remember, this is a furniture chain we’re talking about.

(Jens Hansegard, “IKEA’s Path to Selling 150 Million Meatballs,” The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2013; Andrew Higgins and Stephen Castle, “Ikea Recalls Meatballs after Detection of Horse Meat,” The New York Times, February 25, 2013; April Gosden, “Ikea Plans ‘Green’ Meatballs to Help Tackle Climate Change,” The Telegraph, April 17, 2014; Laura Stampler, “IKEA Now Brews and Sells Its Own Beer,” Business Insider, July 18, 2012)

7. It doesn’t want only to sustain its business, it wants to sustain the planet, too

Vegetarian meatballs aren’t the only thing “green” about IKEA.

The company started selling roof-top solar panels in the UK last year and in September it announced plans to expand that offering to 8 more countries in the following 18 months. It’s starting with the Netherlands and Switzerland and will move on from there.

As reported by Reuters, IKEA has installed 700,000 solar panels on its own rooftops at stores around the world and has plans to up its global use of wind turbines to 224. Other green initiatives include plans to replace, by 2020, all the plastic in its products with recycled plastic or renewable materials, such as wood.

And if you’re driving your electric car in the United Kingdom, you’ll appreciate IKEA’s announcement that all UK stores now have free electric vehicle rapid recharging points installed in their parking lots.

(“IKEA to Widen Solar Panel Sales to Eight New Nations from UK,” Reuters, September 22, 2014; “Electric Vehicle Charging,” IKEA)

8. In the time it takes to put together a couple bookcases, you could build a shelter for a refugee

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the IKEA Foundation has invested $4.8 million to develop portable shelters, to be used by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Last year, 50 prototypes were shipped, in flat-pack boxes, to Syrian refugee camps. Olivier Delarue, UNHCR head of innovation, says that his agency was looking for an improvement on the tents typically used to house the displaced around the world and turned to IKEA for its “expertise in certain areas—such as logistics and flatpacking—that we could learn from.”

According to The Boston Globe, each 188-square-foot unit takes about four hours to assemble. The cost of a prototypes is $10,000 but is expected to fall below $1,000.

(Caroline Winter, “Ikea Sends its New Flatpack Refugee Shelter to Syria,” Bloomberg Businessweek, September 11, 2013; “Ikea: Refuge in a Flat Box,” The Boston Globe, July 5, 2013)

9. An IKEA store is like a 20-bedroom home away from home

It seems that many IKEAs not only have lines of people waiting to buy home furnishings, they also have lines of people wanting to make themselves at home.

Take, for instance, shoppers in China who lounge on the couches and climb under the covers for naps in the beds (photos at ChinaHush). Camilla Hammar, marketing director for IKEA in China, tells Advertising Age that stores there don’t just allow the try-it-out approach, they welcome it, embracing the idea that for the Chinese, shopping at IKEA can be an emotional experience. “It tends to initiate very romantic feelings,” she says. “The first time some couples start talking about getting married is in our showrooms. So that’s something we’ve tapped into.” And that’s why the store in Nanjing hosted three Swedish-style weddings for three couples as a PR event.

But it’s not just the Chinese who want to take advantage of the store’s sleeping—or wedding—accommodations. When Havas Media UK was looking for a way to promote the chain, they found a Facebook group called “I wanna have a sleepover at IKEA.” They latched on to the idea and organized “IKEA’s Big Sleepover” for 100 lucky customers.

And when couple in Maryland looked for a venue for their wedding in 2012, they chose the IKEA store where they had their first date. Another pair, this time in New Jersey, got married last year in  an IKEA framing department, the same place where they’d met eight years earlier.

Even Hollywood knows that domestic magic can happen in IKEA.

(Key, “IKEA in China, ‘Our Home Is Your Home,” ChinaHush, July 27, 2012; “Happy to Bed,” Havas Media; “A Wedding in Aisle 3? Why Ikea Encourages Chinese to Make Its Stores Their Own,” Ad Age, December 10, 2013; David Boroff, “Couple Gets Married in Maryland IKEA,” New York Daily News, April 20, 2012; Eliza Murphy, “Couple Says ‘I Do’ in IKEA’s Framing Department,” ABC News, June 11, 2013)

10. And it can put your love to the ultimate test

Of course, adding IKEA to a relationship doesn’t ensure bliss—even in Sweden. A story in The Local last year recounts how police were called to a home in Strömstad by neighbors who were concerned about loud noises during the early morning hours. The authorities found that the “banging and screaming” was caused by a couple putting together a piece of IKEA furniture, and by their crying child.

There’s nothing like assembling furniture to check your love for your significant other. Well, maybe shopping for furniture can have the same effect. A trip to IKEA could be the perfect premarital outing for couples wanting to see if their love has what it takes to go the distance. Take a look at the video below to get an off-kilter view of the store that just might be “the number one place where couples realize they actually can’t stand each other.”

(“Police Called to Swedish Family’s IKEA Nightmare,” The Local, November 8, 2013)

[photo: “IKEA of Sweden,” by Håkan Dahlström, used under a Creative Commons license]

Facebook Is, Like, a Big Deal

June 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

5133070639_e19172367b_mWelcome to the new Clearing Customs, with a new look, a new logo, and a new Facebook page!

I heard Facebook is getting kind of popular, so I thought it was about time this blog got on board. (Actually, I’ve been posting to Facebook on my personal site for some time, but now I’ve created and will switch over completely soon.)

Your likes are appreciated.

8 Keys for Reaching the Facebook Masses

Facebook. It’s a big deal not just in the US, it’s a big deal all over the world . . . except in the four countries that, according to Mother Jones, currently are at least trying to block it: China, Iran, North Korea, and Vietnam.

The Guardian reports that at the end of 2013, there were 1.23 billion people in the world using Facebook, with 556 million of them getting it on the go, using smartphones and tablets to access the site every day.

Reaching all those people, and getting them to respond, doesn’t have to be hit or miss. According to a new study released by TrackMaven, there are 8 keys to Facebook success (and maybe they’ll help my blogging out, too):

1. Thursday is the most popular day for posting on Facebook, but posts on Sunday get the most interactions. (check)

2. 88% of posts include photos, and they garner 37% more interactions than posts without.

5133070639_e19172367b_m 5133070639_e19172367b_m 5133070639_e19172367b_m 5133070639_e19172367b_m 5133070639_e19172367b_m (check, check, check, check, check)

3. 67.3% of entries are written at or below the 5th grade level, with the highest percentage (17.5) composed at a level comprehensible by an average first grader. Facebook is easy. Facebook is fun. Facebook is easy and fun. (got it)

4. About 94% of posts have 49 or fewer words, but posts with 80 or more words average twice as much engagement as those that are shorter. (already there)

5. Share is the most effective call-to-action word for garnering interactions, compared to pleaselike, and now. I thought I would share this with you, so please share it with others. Share and share alike, I always say. (done)

6. 84% of posts have no hashtags, but those that do get more audience engagement. #Seven #hashtags #is #the #most #effective. (#saynomore)

7. Likewise, for maximum interactions, seven exclamation points—That’s right!! Seven!!!—is the best number! (great!)

8. And, now, are you ready for the last one? Are you sure? OK, here it is: The best amount of question marks is—are you really ready?—nine. Can you believe it? Do you agree? Yes? No? Maybe? (could it be any easier?)

Hey, now that I know the secrets of Facebook, maybe I should take a look at that Twitter-thing.


(Dana Liebelson, “MAP: Here Are the Countries That Block Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube,” Mother Jones, March 28, 2014; Jemima Kiss, “Facebook’s 10th Birthday: From College Dorm to 1.23 Billion Users,” The Guardian, February 3, 2014; The Marketing Maven’s Guide to Facebook, TrackMaven, 2014)

[photo: “Like,” by Adam Fagen, used under a Creative Commons license; illustration: “Facebook Like Button,” by Patrick Nouhailler, used under a Creative Commons license]

Peanut Butter and Nutella: A Tale of Two Spreads

April 15, 2014 § 3 Comments

6398248857_aefa147739_mA few days ago I was the only one in the house at lunch time and I couldn’t find the peanut butter to make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

No peanut butter? Why, it seemed downright un-American. And not only that, but it was nothing less than a betrayal of my upbringing.

An American Staple

Writing in the Pacific Standard, Karina Martinez-Carter quotes Jon Krampner, author of Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, The All-American Food. “Peanut butter,” he says, “embodies the raw primordial heart of American childhood.”

PB&Js are so fundamental to our formative years that, according to the National Peanut Board, the average American will eat 1,500 before graduating from high school.

Peanut butter is part of what makes America America. Even those from outside our borders know it’s so.

While it’s not nearly so popular around the world, once people arrive in the US, they are pulled in by the gooey spread. After giving us another quotation from Krampner—“immigrant kids tend to take to it as a part of their Americanization process”—Martinez-Carter tells of her own experiences:

My father is a first-generation Mexican immigrant and my sister adopted from China, and our cupboard reliably contained a jar of peanut butter we dug into daily. Much like how my sister’s English as a Second Language class teacher screened the classic Disney movies for her kindergarten students to catch them up on cultural references, developing a taste for peanut butter is a component of the acculturation process in the U.S. It is sustenance for understanding America.

Peanuts have their own story to tell about immigrating to America. According to the National Peanut Board, Europeans first came across peanuts while exploring Brazil. Later, Spanish explorers brought peanuts back home from their excursions into the “new world.” From Spain, they were introduced to Asia and Africa. And finally, in the 1700s, Africans brought peanuts to what is now the US.

But it wasn’t until 1884 that Canadian Marcellus Gilmore Edson received a US patent for creating a peanut paste, which he used for making a type of peanut candy. In 1895, John Harvey Kellog invented his own version of peanut butter, a year after he and his brother invented corn flakes. And peanut butter got it’s public debut at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, when C. H. Sumner sold it at his concession stand.

Now, back to my can’t-find-the-peanut-butter dilemma. I’d already spread my jelly, and I had to eat. So I did what I had to do . . . and used Nutella instead.

The Hazelnut Alternative

6398251975_042c8b2e79_mThere it was, a jar of Nutella sitting where I thought the peanut butter should be. (Since we’re still unpacking from our move, there are a lot of things out of place.)

I don’t know where it had come from.

Well actually I do. It had come from all over the world.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD), Nutella is such a good example of the “global value chain” that the group used the chocolate-flavored hazelnut spread as a case study for one of its policy papers.

Here’s the globality of Nutella: Ferrero, the Italian company that produces Nutella, is headquartered in Germany. The ten factories that make Nutella are located in the European Union, Russia, Turkey, North America, South America, and Australia. As for the ingredients, a list with their origins includes

  • hazelnuts mainly from Turkey
  • palm oil from Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and Brazil
  • cocoa mainly from Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Ecuador
  • sugar mainly from Europe
  • vanilla flavor from the Europe and the US

Put it all together and you have a product that’s sold in 75 countries. OECD even made a map to show Nutella’s main suppliers, factories, and main sales offices.

Invented by Pietro Ferrero in the 1940s, Nutella has become the self-proclaimed “number one spread in Europe.” And while it hasn’t yet become a major competitor to peanut butter in the US, it does have it’s devoted Stateside fans.

Take, for instance, the students of Columbia University. Last year, the Columbia Daily Spectator, the school’s newspaper, launched headlines around the country when it reported that in just the first week Nutella was added to the menu at two dining halls, students went through $5,000 worth of the spread. Dining Services said that students were consuming up to 100 pounds of Nutella daily. And by “consuming,” I mean eating it for meals and stealing jars to take home. It was what one student called “all you can eat, and all you can hide.”

If that rate held up, noted the Spectator, it would cost the dining halls $250,000 a year.

But, alas, the numbers didn’t quite hold up. Another article in the newspaper two days later reported that the first week’s Nutella demand actually cost Dining Services $2,500, not $5,000, and the amount quickly faded to $450 a week after that. But even with the revised numbers, that’s still a lot of hazelnut spread.

I guess I can see the appeal. Nutella isn’t necessarily my thing, but I’m sure I would have liked it when I was in college. My mother never let me eat chocolate frosting by the spoonful when I was growing up, but at college, with no Mom looking over my shoulder, I could have eaten all the frosting . . . uh . . . Nutella I’d wanted.

Well, my college days are now long behind me, and I have new voices in my ear (many of which sound a lot like Mom’s). I don’t think I’ll ever develop an extreme taste for Nutella. I do like a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich, though. You really are what you eat, or at least you are what you ate when you were a kid. And I sure did eat a lot of PB&J sandwiches.

PB&Js. What a strange thing, my friend from Asia once told me. She had never seen one, but she’d heard about them. Why, she asked, would Americans want a sandwich made from peanuts, butter, and jelly. Strange indeed.

(Karina Martinez-Carter, “As American as Peanut Butter,” Pacific Standard, February 14, 2014; “Fun Facts,” National Peanut Board; “History,” Peanut Butter Lovers; Koen D. Backer and Sébastien Miroudot, “Mapping Global Value Chains,” OECD Trade Policy Papers, No. 159, OECD Publishing,  2013; Cecilia Reyes, “Nutella in Ferris Booth Costs Dining $5,000 per Week, in Part Due to Dining Hall Thievery,” Columbia Daily Spectator, March 5, 2013; Finn Vigeland, “University Says Nutella Cost $2,500 in First Week, less than $500 After,” Columbia Daily Spectator, March 7, 2013)

[photos: “Jif Peanut Butter” and “Nutella,” by Brian Cantoni, used under a Creative Commons license]

The World’s Largest Ships: Hauling Our Stuff around the Globe

March 27, 2014 § 2 Comments

I can still see the container delivering our furniture and household goods as it shuddered around the street corner on the back of a truck in our Taipei neighborhood. It looked so very, very big, and in a single moment, we had become the rich Americans that we didn’t want to be.

If we were to move to Taipei again, we’d plan on buying most things there, since, through the years, we ended up replacing most of what we took over anyway. But this isn’t a post about what was in our container. Rather it’s about the containers themselves. In fact, it’s about 18,000 of them.


Triple-E vessel Majestic Mærsk visits Copenhagen

Containers look a lot smaller when they’re stacked up at a dock or on a ship—like multi-colored Lego blocks locked neatly together. And nowhere do they seem smaller than when they’re sitting atop a Triple-E.

18,000. That’s how many 20-foot containers that a Triple-E, the world’s largest ship, can hold. The Triple-E is class of container ships built in Korea by Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering for the Danish company Maersk. When production is finished, there will be 20 of these giant ships in service.

Just how big is the Triple-E? It is 400 meters (nearly a quarter of a mile) long, 59 meters (194 feet) wide, and 73 meters (240 feet) tall. Not counting ballast and cargo, it weighs about 55,000 tons. According to The Telegraph, it has enough space to carry 36,000 cars or 111 million pairs of shoes. It’s too big for the Panama Canal and no US port is large enough to receive it.

While the Triple-E is the largest ship in service, it’s not the largest ever built. The Maersk website World’s Largest Ship states that that title goes to the Knock Nevis, a super tanker that measured 458 meters (1,500 feet) before it was scrapped in 2010. And the Triple-E won’t hold the “biggest” distinction for long. Scheduled to begin service in 2017, the Prelude is being built by Samsung Heavy Industries for Shell. This “ship” won’t travel under its own power but will be towed to a location off the coast of Australia where it will be anchored, serving as a “floating liquefied natural gas platform.” The Prelude will be 488 meters (1,600 feet) long and will weigh over 600,000 metric tons.

But for the next few years, the Triple-E will reign supreme. Here’s a clip from Discovery’s series on the ship.

And this video is a time lapse of the Triple-E being built.

And, oh yeah, remember that comparison to Legos? Here’s another time lapse. This one is of someone putting together Lego’s version of the Triple-E (which can be yours for $149.99)

(Paul Kendall, “The Biggest Ship in the World,” The Telegraph, July 30, 2013; “The World’s Largest Ship,” World’s Largest Ship (Maersk); “Shell’s Record-Breaking Prelude Takes to the Water,” BBC News, December 4, 2013)

[photo courtesy of Maersk]

“Let It Go”: Dubbing Disney’s Oscar-Nominated Toe Tapper in 25 Languages

March 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Speaking of films, there is that Academy Awards thing tomorrow night. I’m predicting a sweep for Frozen in its nominated categories: best animated feature and best original song.

If you haven’t heard “Let It Go,” the nominated song from the Disney film, then you 1) haven’t seen the movie, 2) don’t spend much time on YouTube, and 3) don’t live with a seven-year-old who’s memorized all the lyrics.

And if you haven’t heard the original, then you probably haven’t heard the version dubbed into 25 languages. Even if you have heard it, it’s worth another listen.

The English version of “Let It Go” is sung by the Tony Award winning singer and actress Idina Menzel, who voices the movie’s character Elsa. She’s the one singing the English at the beginning of the multi-language video. But even though the rest of the song sounds as if it is sung by her, believe it or not, it isn’t.

So who in the world was tasked with finding all those talented songstresses? Look no further than Rick Dempsey, senior vice president of creative for Disney Character Voices International.

“In a lot of cases I think we fooled some people into thinking that it’s Idina in all those languages,” Dempsey told NPR. “And that, of course, is the goal, to ensure there is character consistency and the voices are all very similar around the world.”

But all that work isn’t a one-man show. Dempsey told The Hollywood Reporter, “We have 76 people around the world in 19 offices that oversee films in 55 languages. Our goal is to make every audience feel like Frozen was made in their country for their people.”

10152920204_d766fbe52c_qThe Los Angeles Times reports that the array of voice talents in “Let It Go” include Gisela (Castilian and Catalan), Serena Autieri (Italian), Willemijn Verkaik (German, Dutch), Takako Matsu (Japanese), Carmen Sarahi (Latin American Spanish), Marsha Milan Londoh (Malay), and Anna Buturlina (Russian).

And the impressive work of Dempsey’s crew on Frozen didn’t end with the only 25 versions of the feature song. While most stories report that Frozen has been dubbed into 41 languages, a Disney UK tweet puts the total at 43.

(“‘Let It Go’: A Global Hit in Any Language,” NPR, February 24, 2014; Tim Appelo, “‘Frozen’ Composer Robert Lopez on the Perils of Translating ‘Let It Go,’” February 25, 2014; Rebecca Keegan, “‘Frozen’: Finding a Diva in 41 Languages,” Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2014)

[photo: “Snowflake Macro: Silverware,” by Alexey Kljatov, used under a Creative Commons license]

Doing the Culture Slide: Living with the Confusing Effects of Globalization

February 4, 2014 § 2 Comments


Donald McDonald at an iCon’Chicken event in Japan

The culture slide. It’s not a dance for expats—though sometimes it may feel like it.

Culture slide is the name I’ve given to the confusion and shifts in thinking brought about by globalization.

It’s when your kids grow up in Taipei and think that Giordano clothing stores must be from Italy (they’re actually from Hong Kong) and they must have outlets in the US (they don’t). Likewise, Napoli sounds Italian, but the pizza chain is Taiwanese. Then there’s NET (from Taiwan), Fnac (from France), and B&Q (from the UK). And as much as they may feel like GAP, Best Buy, and Home Depot, the kids didn’t find any of them when they traveled to the US.

It cuts the other way, too. Back in the States, we think we should be able to order corn soup and extra-spicy extra-crispy chicken at KFC. . . and tuna and peas should be available as toppings at Pizza Hut. And we’re pleasantly surprised to find out that IKEA and Yoshinoya are in the good ol’ US of A, too—even if they haven’t made it to our part of the country yet.

That last part reminds me of a story attributed to Den Fujita, founder of McDonald’s in Japan. In Asian Brand Strategy: How Asia Builds Strong Brands, Martin Roll writes about Fujita saying, “Once a group of Japanese Boy Scouts visited the United States and were asked by a local television station what their impression of America was. One boy replied, ‘I didn’t know that they had McDonald’s in the United States, too.’” Maybe you’ve heard that story before, but that time it was a Japanese boy in Florida or a Japanese girl in Los Angeles or a French girl in Times Square or a European boy or a little boy from Indonesia. It’s all so confusing.

Donald McDonald

Ahhh, McDonald’s, the king of globalization, and the instigator of so much culture slide.

Not only does McDonald’s localize their menus wherever they go—which might make Germans think that all the world’s restaurants have McCurrywurst—but they’re selections also cross borders in some fairly strange ways. A couple years ago, Germany’s McDonald’s introduced bubble tea, a drink with chewy tapioca balls that was invented in Taiwan. Here’s the commercial:

As others have pointed out, why is the actor yelling, “Bubblezzaaiii”? Is he trying to sound Japanese?

So that brings us back to Japan, the country with the second most McDonald’s restaurants, next to the US. Fujita brought “Donald McDonald” (it’s easier to pronounce that way) to his country in 1971, writes John Love in McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, with the idea that the restaurants would have to look “100 percent Japanese.” Love quotes Fujita as saying, “If I insisted that this was something that came from America, the Japanese would say, ‘This is American, and we don’t like it because we don’t like Americans.'” It seems that in Fujita’s eyes, they didn’t disdain all things Western, as he’s also credited in Love’s book with telling reporters,

The reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for two thousand years. If we eat McDonald’s hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years, we will become taller, our skin will become white, and our hair blond.

It will be some time before that can be proven or disproven, but it didn’t take nearly as long for McDonald’s in Japan to warm up to its American roots. Right now it’s in the middle of a campaign with throwback menus featuring “American Vintage” food from the ’50s, ’70s, and ’80s—or at least it features what some in Japan think is vintage American food. The offerings include a burger with two beef patties, an egg, and mashed potatoes between the buns (’50s), “Hot & Groovy” chicken sandwiches topped with salsa (’70s), and sandwiches with the addition of BBQ sauce (’80s).

Now that’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.

Sing Along with Me: “Baseball, Hot Dogs . . .”

I’m just glad that here in the US, we’ve got a pretty good handle on who we are and what is ours. We know that McDonald’s is a genuine American export, even if the menu changes around the globe. We also know that no matter how much the world tilts on its cultural axis, we’ll always be able to count on things like baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Remember that chorus from the Chevy commercial in 1975?

To review, that’s baseball (where all the balls used in the Major Leagues are made in Costa Rica), hot dogs (which originated in Germany), apple pie (first made in England), and Chevrolet (which is the third-best selling auto brand in the US, behind Toyota).

In 2006, Chevrolet came out with a new version of their song, once again advertising America’s “favorite brand.” The chorus was updated with several new versions, such as “stolen bases, goat-cheese pizza, bottled water, and Chevrolet.” The commercial ended with the tagline “The world has changed. But the love affair continues.”

I can’t attest to the love affair, but, boy, the world sure has changed.

Step, two, three, four. Doing the culture slide.

(Martin Roll, Asian Brand Strategy: How Asia Builds Strong Brands, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006; John F. Love, McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, New York: Bantam, 1995; Michelle Lynn Dinh, “McDonald’s Japan Serving ‘American Vintage’ Burgers Starting This January,” RocketNews24, December 28, 2013)

[photo: “iCon’ Chiken FES._064,” by TAKA@P.P.R.S, used under a Creative Commons license]

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