Should marketers fly the flag?
Companies could get burned mixing politics and advertising in Quebec

By promoting "two solitudes" in their marketing and advertising campaigns, companies in the rest of Canada may be inadvertently promoting Quebec separation. Thus concludes Andrew Stodart, in an article published last month in Marketing Magazine.

"Frankly, I think we're being overly sensitive to "Québécois" culture, and not doing enough to encourage Canadian nationalism in Quebec," wrote Stodart, a consultant, and marketing lecturer at York University's M.B.A. program. "We seem to be worried about the sensibilities of the few, and instead of working to foster unity are sowing the seeds of disunity."

Stodart was referring to controversy generated by Coca-Cola's decision to run different TV spots in English and French Canada. In the English commercial, a little girl sings the national anthem before a kid's pick-up hockey game played on a frozen pond. In campaigns targeting francophones, no distinctly Canadian imagery is used.

Coca-Cola's approach is not new. When Stodart worked there in the mid 1970s, the company ran a series of ads featuring Canadian imagery in the English ads, and Quebec imagery in the French ads. The reason given was that French-Canadians would not identify with images of English Canada -- an argument he believes is wrong.

The column generated considerable negative reaction from francophone Quebecers, who Stodart said, "misunderstood" his position.

But they likely understood him quite well. These kinds of opinions, common among many English Canadians, betray a stunning naiveté of the reality of marketing to francophone Quebecers, and the dangers of wandering into the minefield of Quebec politics.

And it's easy to see how such opinions evolve. If you held a radio talk-show discussion among Quebec anglophones about whether "big companies" should proudly fly the Canadian flag in their Quebec advertising, you would likely get substantial support for the idea.

Anglos from the rest of Canada whose primary contacts in this province are with Quebec anglos are likely to form the same opinion, from having talked with "natives" on the ground. But there is a world of difference between Quebec anglophones and francophones on the issue.

There has been a noticeable rise in Canadian nationalism during the last several years among anglophones in Quebec and in the rest of Canada, whose opinions are substantially similar on a wide variety of issues.

South of the border nationalism is a big motivator. Just use of the word "American," or the sight of the U.S. flag can be a key selling point -- such as in recent movies American Psycho, American President and American Beauty, and in rock videos featuring the flag, such as Madonna's American Pie, and Neil Young's, Harvest Moon.

Even here in Canada, Molson Inc. has been seeing considerable success with its "I am Canadian," campaign -- in which an orator actor extols the virtues of being Canadian -- to promote the Molson Canadian beer brand which, you guessed it, is not distributed in Quebec.

But marketing to Quebec francophones in a completely different story. Because whatever their political status may be, when it comes to consumer products marketing, they form a distinct society.

For one thing, a vast majority of them don't identify themselves primarily as Canadians at all. When asked, 64 per cent of francophones identified themselves as "Quebecers," compared to only 12 per cent who identified themselves as Canadians, according to the polling firm Leger & Leger, which has been tracking such data for thirty years.

And it's probably not a coincidence that this statistic roughly correlates with francophone Quebecers' support for sovereignty, which in the last referendum exceeded 60 per cent.

Francophone Quebecers also have widely different tastes than other North Americans. Take television for example, which now takes up more than 20 hours a week of the average Canadian's time. The vast majority of francophone Quebecers favorite television shows (and commercials) are produced here in Quebec by francophone Quebecers. And you won't see much Canadian imagery in any of it.

Among the province's advertising community, it is commonly thought that the best way to market to francophone Quebecers is to use local talent -- people who understand the market and its motivations. This is not all just self-promotion either. There are many examples of companies doing separate advertising to francophones that are generating substantial results.

The most oft cited example is Pepsi Co., which has used local actor Claude Meunier ­ playing various off the wall characters -- as its spokesperson for more than a decade, with the result that Quebec is one of the only markets in the world where Pepsi outsells Coke.

A good hint as to whether putting Canadian flags all over product advertising works in appealing to francophone Quebecers is to note that Quebec advertising agencies rarely recommend it.

At best, French-language campaigns either overtly or subtly appealing to "Canadians" are likely to not be as effective as those appealing to "Quebecers." Worse, if the execution is clumsy, such commercials run the risk of being jumped on by the province's rather large political class, as an example of "outside" corporations trying to deliver propaganda.

They same thing applies to Quebec institutions trying to market themselves to the province's anglophones. For example the Quebec government recently ran a campaign against the underground economy, featuring dozens of people under a table exchanging money.

More than one anglophone -- even those strongly against the underground economy -- seeing the Quebec flag on that ad, likely had visions of tax dollars going to fund Louise Beaudoin's language police. Some may have even concluded that the underground economy is not so bad after all.

At its extreme, commercials trying to appeal to francophone Quebecer's "Canadian" identity run the risk of being targeted by the province's comedians, generally stunningly effective at mocking anything Canadian.

In the final analysis Stodart's argument is more political than it is economic. But if companies buy his reasonning -- that they should be doing more to promote Canadian unity among Quebec's francophones -- they had better watch their fingers. They run a big risk of getting burned.

 

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Percentage of Quebec francophones who identify themselves as:

1999

Quebecer 64%
French Canadian 23%
Canadian 12%

1984

Quebecer 37%
French Canadian 48%
Canadian 15%

1970

Quebecer 21%
French Canadian 44%
Canadian 35%

 

Chart caption: Francophone Quebecers are increasingly likely to identify themselves as Quebecers first, rather than Canadian.

 

Source: Leger & Leger

 

 

You can contact Diekmeyer at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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