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The Upside of Politeness in Québec: Language Laws and Retail Signage

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By Eric Blais

As expected, the Québec government indicated last week its intention to challenge Québec’s Court of Appeal’s ruling that the province cannot force companies to add a French component to their name.

Several multinationals took the province to court after they were told by the Office québécois de la langue française to change their names or risk running afoul of the rules governing the language of business in the province. A Québec Superior Court judge sided with the companies, which included Walmart, Costco, Best Buy, Gap, Old Navy and Guess.

I leave it to others to debate whether this should be forced upon retailers through legislation. It’s a sensitive issue but one marketers would be wise to consider from all angles before dismissing it as just one more obstacle to overcome when doing business in Québec.

Québec Premier Philippe Couillard was a brain surgeon before entering politics. He could also have been a marketer. This time, the governments appears to be adopting a slightly different tone. The narrative from past government on this delicate issue has often been about protecting the French language and the Québec nation’s distinct identity. It still is but Mr. Couillard gave a different explanation for his government’s position – one that sounds more like a marketer’s viewpoint than a politician’s.

The Premier gave the example of Second Cup:

“Everyone knows that they sell coffee, but it’s like this company said, ‘I know where I am, I know what environment I am in and recognize the existence of the French in Quebec.

“We don’t want to erase trademarks – it’s not that Canadian Tire will become Pneu canadien, let’s be clear on that, but it’s a question of politeness.”

A question of politeness

Most companies operating across geographies comply with local regulations while looking for efficiencies. It’s not always an easy balance to achieve and Québec, with its many unique requirements, can be particularly challenging. Those who are frustrated by Québec’s demand that a French descriptor be added to English trademarks will view this latest move as one more costly irritant.

Others will view it differently. Many already have; through a marketer’s lens instead of a lawyer’s.

The Premier called it a politesse, a courtesy. The importance of being courteous is nothing new to retailers. Let’s stay with coffee. According to the J.D. Power and Associates 2012 Specialty Coffee Retailer Satisfaction Report, staff, more than price or merchandise offerings, is key to driving higher satisfaction among specialty coffee customers. One of the key staff factor is courtesy. It’s not a stretch to suggest that adapting all brand touch points in Québec to cater to French-speaking customers can signal a higher level of courtesy, including the sign above a store’s entrance.

A competitive advantage

Quebeckers will view a retailer’s brand more favourably if it makes an effort to adjust to their needs. For retailers, adding a French descriptor to an English name is a symbolic way to signal that they are catering to them. There is directional evidence of this in the findings from our firm’s What Québec Wants™ study. When we asked 3,000 Canadians whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “I prefer to buy products and services from companies that make an effort to cater to the specific preferences and needs of people in my locality“, 63% of French-speaking Quebeckers agreed compared to 50% of Canadians living in the rest of Canada.

There are no doubt cost and operational implications for doing so. When Crate & Barrel added the word “maison” next to its name, it did what many others have done without being forced to. To quote the Premier again, “it said, ‘I know what environment I am in” and I will brand myself accordingly.

There is no law forcing banks and other retailers to have signage in Chinese in Markham, Ontario and in other communities across Canada. They do so voluntarily. Clearly, these organizations see it as an investment instead of a cost. Even Québec’s Banque Nationale thinks it’s a business practice that will help its brand in that community.

Retailers should carefully consider their position on this issue. Rather than look at this as being forced to invest to protect the French language, they should consider assessing how it might benefit their brand to be the more polite one.

UPDATE: At a recent news conference Hélène David, the minister responsible for the French Language Charter, said the government will oblige Québec retailers to add French descriptives to their outdoor banners. However, David confirmed Québec has decided not to appeal the Québec Court of Appeal ruling. Instead, it it will change the law at the level of regulations.

Eric Blais is President of Headspace Marketing – a Toronto-based marketing-communications consultancy helping clients build their brands in Québec.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. What a well articulated article. So rare to see a thoughtful and respectful commentary on Quebec’s language laws

  2. Interesting divide in retail branding perspective for Quebec… But not all retailers are in agreement. Especially the medium scale retailers…

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