I went on a date with a Moldovan girl last spring and could not get over what happened. The realization I came to that night has stuck with me for the past eight months. It shined a great light on the cultural perception of the United States and what we embody as Americans to the outside world. The past 18 months of volunteer service in the Republic of Moldova has provided me with sufficient time to observe consumer behavior and to derive perceptions of the Moldovan consumer profile.
Like any normal date, I wanted to look and smell good, bathe of course, and come prepared with something interesting to do for my date and me. Nonetheless, my plan was thrown a curveball and I did not know what to make of it at the time. As I cruised into the capital of Moldova, Chișinău, I decided to give my date a heads up that I was coming into town. We would be dining at a reputable Sri Lankan restaurant that served great food and had an extensive drink collection. She agreed and was excited for what was to follow, but first wanted us to meet somewhere beforehand. When I read the location, I smirked. Her request was that we meet at… McDonald’s.
Flabbergasted, I responded okay and made my way into the city. I walked a few blocks and passed the cathedral park, creeping closer to McDonald’s. I questioned whether or not this was really happening. As I strolled I imagined most American men being thrilled if their dates were to ask them to meet at McDonald’s for a romantic evening. When I arrived at McDonald’s I was blown away.
The bright lights overwhelmed my senses. The front of the store was littered with picnic tables and umbrellas. There were wooden ledges on the exterior of the building to place food, drinks, and to smoke cigarettes. The sheer amount of people organized in front of the restaurant would have made you think you rolled up to a brand new night club in Chicago. The men were dressed in sport coats, button-up shirts tucked into dress pants with shiny dress shoes. The ladies were wearing summer dresses, heels, fully made-up with their hair done. All of them gorgeous mind you. These are Moldovan ladies I am talking about.
Here I was, some peasant wearing dark jeans, a V-neck, spring coat, and some well-kept Chuck’s. As I approached my date, I basked in pure amazement. Everyone was sipping sodas out of plastic cups and clutching their hamburgers in-style as the yellow glow of the giant M lit up their faces. My date was wearing a nice black dress, heels, and a spring jacket… looking like she was ready to go to prom. I smiled, greeted her properly, acknowledged the moment then asked her if she would like to move on. After a noticeable pause we did and carried out the date as planned.
What I realized from this date is how McDonald’s (and even the U.S.) is perceived from the Moldovan perspective. The country has only four McDonald’s restaurants making the brand quite exclusive. Each one is modeled after the restaurants in the U.S.. The stores are kept immaculately clean with newer decor, furniture, attractive signage, employees in uniform, etc. To Americans these are merely qualifiers for any fast-food chain but in the center of the capital city in a developing nation this type of establishment generates buzz. When considering the average annual salary in Moldova ($3,500), purchasing one McChicken is equivalent to purchasing an entree and drink at a sit-down restaurant for an American in the U.S. ($14.75). It’s no wonder a night out at the golden arches becomes a big deal.
Another factor to consider in the interest of McDonald’s is that the brand, whether we like or not my fellow Americans, is representative of our culture to the external world. Hundreds of Moldovans have told me that the profile of an average American is rich, always smiling, and loves fast food. Therefore, hitting Mickey D’s on a Friday night dressed to the nines does not sound so crazy after all. Does it? It sounds American and to Moldovans this is attractive. McDonald’s is a status symbol. It represents wealth and perhaps happiness.
A major concern is that pocketbooks are succumbing to pride. With not much disposable income for the average Moldovan to expend, a trip to McDonald’s becomes a pricey time out to the capital’s flashy and hip night club.