environment / Latest Culture News

Brands, Before Rushing In


Iranian spin-offs


Leicester Square as it used to be

At moments when seismic shifts in the global status quo are making history, some of humanity’s most revealing questions are asked.

This week The Times, the BBC, Time magazine and the LA Times posted articles speculating over whether McDonald’s, arguably either the flagship of US values, and /or of global capitalism (which Pope Francis recently called the Dung of the Devil) or of the face of mass farming and the fast food industry, will now get a foothold in Iran. McDonalds already saw an increase in net profit taking it’s profits up to $5.5859 billion in 2012-13 alone.

This would mean, of course, hooking millions of new consumers with their ‘secret ingredients’, although McDonalds did have stores in Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. When McDonalds left Bolivia in 2002, these kind of reports came out:

Leicester Square with a casino facing Burger King on the other side

Leicester Squarem a casino across from Burger King

It was very hard to get used to McDonald’s, it’s like another planet,” said Miriam Torres, a kindergarten teacher who saved up for one week to take her two sons to celebrate one final birthday with Ronald McDonald.

There’ve been comparable situations foreshadowing these excited questions about American cheap food outlets appearing in Iran.


Iran’s ZamZam Cola

For example, reports on the relaxing of markets in Cuba recently, show a BBC journalist hunting instances of capitalism in today’s Cuba, singingly praising the packaging and branding of the first ever hamburger joint the country had seen.

The creation of Mecca ColaThe Taste of Freedom“, widely drunk in the East, was an outright refusal to pander to America’s stealthy means of establishing financial, if not ideological, power.  Mecca Cola was first inspired by Iran’s ZamZam cola, and following the 2002 boycott of Coca-Cola by Saudi Arabia, was unofficially dubbed the soft drink of the Hajj.

There’s a web compendium of similar brand mimicry and the defiance of US copyright ideals in Iran.

Red Square MacDonalds

Red Square MacDonalds

After a school visit to Russia during the Cold War, there was alarm from those who’d been on our school trip at later news that McDonalds was opening up on the stunning, cobbles of Red Square and Pushkin Square, in a country where, just before, people queuing for bread had lined the streets and our school group had been refused food by restaurants due to lack of supplies to feed us with. Later Mark Zuckerberg famously had his photo taken after eating at the Red Square MacDonalds, which went viral on Russian social media.

So will this happen in Iran? Will the environs of Azadi square, like London’s Trafalgar Square, be littered with these shop fronts? Twitter is currently awash with the Iranian term for McDonalds. Russia has since closed down some of their McDonalds, but the chain still pulls in profits from so many countries worldwide that it is easier to list countries in which it is not. It would be impossible for any nation not to feel loss of revenue, as this article ‘McDonalds Defeated Communism in Russia explains, but what are the other losses?

Iranian officials say they have provided no authorization for the American fast-food giant McDonald’s to operate in the country. 

“Goodbye Falafel, Hello McDonalds!” – recent tweets from Iran

Mojtaba Khosrotaj, Iran’s deputy industry minister, told reporters this week that any international restaurant brand will need a a license from a related guild in order to launch its business in Iran.

“No request has been filed by McDonald’s to start operating in Iran and no authorization to the same effect has been issued so far.


Iran MC, One of Many Knock-Offs

J2014 Isfahan City Center Mall, one of the biggest in the country. © Thomas Cristofoletti

2014 Isfahan City Center Mall, one of the biggest in the country. © Thomas Cristofoletti

June 29, 2014 - Shiraz, Iran. A woman shops at Hyperstar, Iran’s first international-style hypermarket, built inside the Persian Gulf Complex, a huge mall built a few kilometers outside Shiraz. Hyperstar plans to open 15 branches by 2015 in 5 different cities. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

2014 Isfahan City Center Mall, one of the biggest in the country. © Thomas Cristofoletti

June 19, 2014 - Isfahan, Iran. Customers at the

2014 Isfahan City Center Mall, one of the biggest in the country. © Thomas Cristofoletti


Mecca Cola

In the late 1980s, Phil Sokolof, a millionaire businessman who’d suffered a heart attack at 43, paid for full page newspaper ads in New York, Chicago, and other large US cities accusing McDonald’s menu of being a threat to American health. In fact McDonalds have been dragged through one of the longest court cases in UK history by UK Greenpeace and are constantly attacked by PETA and other animal ethics and rights groups, as well as undergoing cases for tax evasion and dangerously low pay for employees, who were forced to take subsistence from the state due to low wages (from 2007-11, fast food workers in the US drew an average of $7 billion of public assistance annually due to receiving low wages). Is this the joy of the open market?

Ask any town-dwelling Briton what McDonalds and similar chains have done to their local high street, and you will find that local businesses have closed down and homogeneity has set in. These bring with them apathy, a lack of local knowledge and personal connection, and corporate rules of operation in which time is money. Try complaining about mould in your onions from Sainsbury’s for example, as opposed to the local grocer, the former is an exhaustive and obstructive process. What comes with these chains, aside from the draining monotony of their shop-front and branded aesthetics, are customer service mechanisms like 0845 numbers and data collection. These high rate numbers have been such a bane on UK society that the government was forced to eventually rein them in, creating a law that limited the amount of profit corporations could make from you for needing to contact them, but still permitting premium numbers to exist in this new culture of automated ‘customer care’.

There is a book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, attempting to tackle the nature of these two tides with the Middle East in mind, but its claims that globalisation brings peace is not wholly true, and it neglects much of the cultural and social costs. The book which uses the olive tree to symbolise the world of tradition and Lexus to symbolise the new throes of industry, might still be treated as a springboard for thoughts on how best to approach the impending influx of the Lexus into Iran’s olive groves. These moments when aspects of the ‘new world’ versus ‘old world’ are more suddenly to merge by the removal of a metaphorical dam, rather than gradually occurring as they have in most places, are rare.  and the new world needs a lot of critical examining and it is very hard to change as so many instilled systems allow a few to protect their own interests, while local knowledge of the old should be given a front row seat in the discussion, something that is systematically hard to contain and quantify on that scale.  Other more subtle and less traceable things are lost in the introduction of chains to your community. For example, working on an estate in North London where the kids were able to ask for credit from the local bakers, the staff knew every kid’s parents, everyone’s address and everyone’s home situation, which were mostly difficult. The estate was full of vulnerable children, so it meant a lot to see the bakery staff extend their generosity that way with them, kids that were for the most part not taken seriously by other adults. The bakery was then unceremoniously wiped out soon after by London’s ‘regeneration’ scheme (the selling off of government flats to create expensive apartments). The bakery has been replaced by a Starbucks, a company which, although it offers free wifi, has avoided paying UK taxes which essentially would pay for the country’s infrastructure.

The Iranian official’s denials follow reports that McDonald’s, the world’s largest fast-food chain by market value, is trying to obtain the license to open branches across Iran. These came in the aftermath of the breakthrough in Vienna earlier this month between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries over the Iranian nuclear energy program.

IranMcDonaldsSo what does McDonalds megacorp itself have to say about it? They made a statement, and this application form exists apparently, as  Los Angeles Times, posted on its website an application that would-be franchisees can fill out to apply.

The removal of certain economic sanctions against the country came at the end of marathon talks on July 14 that they had agreed on certain restrictions over the Iranian nuclear energy activities in return for.