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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.


  • By Danielle on 6.6.2014 at 3:31 pm

    While I understand why McDonald’s wants to use legal methods to protect its brand and prevent aligning themselves with political factions, I’m not sure how effective their tactics will be. Frankly (I hope I don’t sound insensitive when I say this), the protestors may have bigger worries than whatever “appropriate measures” McDonald’s plans to make. The only thing McDonald’s can do is say that they had nothing to do with these democracy signs—the damage is done.

    With all the negative press the company has been getting concerning their unhealthy menu items and the fast food wage protests here in the US, I feel like there may be worse things in the world than being associated with democracy. They have already been associated with protest (at least in the US) because of the fast food worker strikes.

    This was a long reply, but had a great post and great questions! Thanks for sharing this.

  • By Eric on 6.9.2014 at 12:11 pm

    An interesting set of questions to pose. As we saw a few years back with the Chik-fil-A same-sex marriage controversy, a corporation’s statement on any political or social matter can have wide-reaching affects. I think it is wise for McThai to stay neutral on the matter. As for McDonald’s global, it seems they have released a statement against protestors using their logo, but it seems to be merely a warning and has wisely not included any hint of a political stance.
    I feel that for the interest of the company, this neutrality is the best possible move for McDonald’s. True, becoming a rally flag for protestors would drive business among the group and their supporters, but I fear the consequences among those opposed would be equally (if not more) great.

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