The Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Shanghai, the group’s first roastery in China. Picture: REUTERS
The Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Shanghai, the group’s first roastery in China. Picture: REUTERS

New York — America’s corporate bosses could be excused if they don’t agree with President Donald Trump’s boasts that a trade war is “easy to win”.

They can just reflect on the levers of pain China pulled against South Korean-owned businesses last year to imagine a state-nudged boycott against Starbucks or shutdown of Nike’s factories.

China vows to retaliate against all US tariffs and announced $60bn worth of American goods it plans to slap tariffs on if Trump’s administration follows through with a proposal to impose duties on another $200bn in Chinese imports. Since that’s more than the value of all US exports to China, the Asian nation will need more than tit-for-tat tariffs to punch back.

If China employs a similar strategy to the one used when its neighbour installed a missile defence system — shuttering stores and factories owned by South Korean companies and stoking boycotts — a slew of US brands could pay dearly. China is both an essential supplier and also the biggest growth market for many US companies.

Here’s a rundown of some of the brands with a lot to lose:

Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS


Just last year, China showed that it wasn’t afraid to poke Nike when a programme on state-run television criticised it for false advertising. That’s troubling for the world’s largest sports brand because consistent growth in China stabilised Nike when it struggled to fend off competition in the US. Revenue in China surged 21% in the past year to $5.13bn, growing to 14% of Nike’s total sales. Meanwhile, revenue in North America declined by about 2%. And China is a major supplier, too, producing about one-fifth of its goods.


The coffee chain counts the US and China as its two key markets. Last year, China was “a standout”, posting 7% same-store sales growth, CEO Kevin Johnson said. Starbucks expects strength to continue with an accelerated expansion plan that will add 600 stores a year to hit 6,000 by 2022. But there are already signs of weakness in the country, with sales at existing stores declining 2% last quarter.

Starbucks is also more exposed than other US restaurant chains because it owns most of its stores in the country, rather than selling franchise rights. But that may also shield it from a backlash because it’s seen as a good employer and founder Howard Schultz travels to the region often for public events.

A man stands outside a McDonald’s restaurant on Wangfujing, a famous shopping street in Beijing, China. Picture: REUTERS
A man stands outside a McDonald’s restaurant on Wangfujing, a famous shopping street in Beijing, China. Picture: REUTERS


The world’s largest restaurant chain has been in China for almost three decades and now has about 2,600 locations there. The company did reduce its exposure to the country last year, selling its China division for $1.7bn to an investor group that includes state-backed entities.

But McDonald’s maintained a 20% stake, which means it’s still a valuable source of revenue growth. The new owners plan to almost double the number of locations in the next five years. But that will come amid a recent slowdown in the business, with customer visits declining over the past several months.


While China is one of the beverage company’s biggest markets, Coca-Cola did recently reduce exposure there by divesting its bottling operations. It doesn’t break out sales from the country but has consistently called China one of its best growth markets. For many years, the company’s Sprite brand was tops in China.


The toymaker is looking to China to help revive growth, including entering a partnership with e-commerce giant Alibaba last year. It also recently reached a deal to open learning centres in the country with a local partner that will integrate its brands, including Fisher-Price, into the curriculum. Mattel, which also makes the Barbie and American Girl lines, said last year that its China business could quadruple by 2020.


Yum China, the operator of KFC and Pizza Hut restaurants in China, was the target of anti-US protests just two years ago, and it’s easy to see why. The spinoff of Yum Brands runs the country’s biggest network of fast-food restaurants, with 8,200 outlets.

Any pressure from the government would add more difficulties for Yum China. Pizza Hut has been struggling and KFC unexpectedly posted flat same-store sales last quarter as younger diners turn to domestic chains and healthier options. A consortium that includes KKR, Hillhouse Capital and Chinese sovereign fund China Investment Corp are said to back a potential takeover of Yum China.

Michael Kors

While many US brands have been reducing risk in China, Michael Kors in 2016 acquired direct control of its business there from a licensee. The division included more than 100 stores and about $200m in revenue. The move was seen as a way to offset slowing sales in other regions. The luxury purveyor also makes a lot of its goods in China, with one manufacturing partner accounting for 20% of its products.


Burger King

The chain’s owner, Restaurant Brands International, has big plans for China. CEO Daniel Schwartz recently said the country will be the focus of its global expansion plans. The company is also taking its Tim Hortons brand to China with plans to open more than 1,500 locations there. “We’re excited about China,” Schwartz said on a recent call with analysts.