Golden Arches: Trademark, Talisman or Truncheon?
“Grab the Golden Arches and storm the blockade!” If you were in Bangkok recently you might have heard some agitated protester shout that. Well, you might have heard it in Thai, and you wouldn’t have understood, but still, someone might have said it. Who would have thought the Golden Arches, iconic symbol of McDonald’s, would have been a key emblem for a political protest in Thailand? Such is the global world in which we live, where symbols and trademarks take on whole new meanings, where global consumers – maybe more than brand owners – often control and (re)create brand imagery and meaning.
The irony of this event, still unfolding, may be especially resonant with stakeholders of the Quinlan School of Business: students, faculty, staff, alumni and donors, including one particularly gracious and benevolent alumnus and donor, Michael Quinlan, for whom the school was recently re-named. Mr. Quinlan, as most readers know, had a distinguished career as a McDonald’s employee, rising from mailroom attendant to CEO and Board Chairman of the McDonald’s empire.
Recapping the story in Bangkok: anti-coup political supporters infused the arches into a “democracy” sign, replacing the “m” with the McDonald’s trademark-protected Golden Arches. McDonald’s corporation from afar issued a “cease and refrain” order. McThai, the local face of McDonald’s, has been more circumspect. Perhaps for fear of siding with that particular political group, which favors the ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the Pheu Thai Party, but probably for fear of losing half its sales by appearing to support them. Ronald McDonald meanwhile stands by, smiling and offering the traditional Thai wai to all passersby of the nearly 200 McDonald’s restaurants in Thailand.
So, what’s your take? Should McDonald’s exercise its right and use whatever legal means necessary to prevent the protestors from using the Golden Arches? Should they turn a blind eye? Might this event serendipitously present opportunities for the McDonald’s brand (and what would be those opportunities)? Regardless of your answers to these questions, we once again see tangible evidence that emerging markets never fail to surprise, and thus to create interesting challenges – and opportunities – for employees, managers, executives, investors, policy makers, consumers, and political activists.