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Last week, the Malaysian government's Islamic Development Department demanded pretzel chain Auntie Anne's change the name of its pretzel dogs, anticipating a spate of confusion across the majority-Muslim country. They feared that a number of Malaysian consumers would conflate these decidedly non-canine pretzel dogs with items containing actual dog meat. The agency made further requests of Auntie Anne's, an American company, to excise the word "dog" from its corporate nomenclature entirely.
"In Islam, dogs are considered unclean and the name cannot be related to halal certification," Sirajuddin Suhaimee, halal-division director of the Department, justified, referring to the government's 2014 halal guidelines which deem products "which use the name or synonymous names with non-halal products or confusing terms" ineligible for halal certification. As an alternative, Suhaimee suggested that the name Pretzel Sausage may make more sense.
It bears noting that this agency's asks have affected products from other fast food chains in Malaysia long before Auntie Anne's. In 2009, A&W had its root beer renamed “A&W Sarsaparilla” before being termed "RB" in 2013 so as not to delude consumers by suggesting that there was alcohol in this soda. Ginger Beer sold in cans became "Ginger Ade." The company also renamed its hot dogs "beef coneys."
In many corners of Malaysia, the Auntie Anne's episode has been met with backlash for its sledgehammer-subtlety literalism, with Malyasian Tourism and Culture Minister Nazri Aziz saying that "even in Malay it's called hot dog—it's been around for so many years." Even Marina Mahathir, the daughter of a former Malaysian Prime Minister, mocked the decision in a widely-trafficked Facebook post, finding that the governmental agency's assumptions of the greater Muslim Malaysian public to be pandering and regressive. Stateside, most of the coverage of this incident thus far has parroted this reaction, containing a slight tenor of mockery leveled against the sheer stupidity of such a read—and the perceived prudishness of the country's iron-fisted Malaysian Islamic Development Department.
There's another issue at play here, too, that I can't help but feel such coverage outside of Malaysia misses: what responsibility does an American corporation have when it travels overseas and tries to endear itself to a new, non-American consumer base? Well, quite a lot. I am reminded of the false starts of Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's in India, their wildly ill-conceived initial menus shapeshifting according to local habits that neither company had especially prepared itself for. At first, Dunkin' Donuts didn't quite understand that many Indians didn't have the palette for morning donuts during their commutes in the same way some Americans did, and this ignorance showed in their empty stores. With time, Dunkin' changed its Indian menu to accommodate to customers who came in during all hours of the day and wanted more than dessert, expanding its offerings to beefless burgers, sandwiches, and wraps. There are certain decrees that a corporation takes on when it traipses into a new market—a necessity to accustom oneself to local attitudes, to not make too many assumptions of a populace, to adapt to and speak their language. This is not just a mere exercise in courteous cross-cultural fluency; not doing so risks torpedoing sales, the very lifelines of these businesses.
The case of Auntie Anne's in Malaysia is a bit more complicated than what we've seen before, with a government seemingly out of step with the demands of its people. Yet being prepared for this blowback this is a responsibility that a company asks for when it expands to a market it hasn't permeated before.
Is asking Auntie Anne's to rename the pretzel dog making too big a deal out of nothing? Let us know in the comments!