From twin beds to the sofa bed

—Air Canada’s English-speaking CEO is a reminder of how many Canadian brands don’t think of French Canada as a priority market, says Eric Blais—

Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau’s speech to Montreal’s business community this week, including his declaration that he is too busy to learn French despite living in Quebec for 14 years, have triggered a storm of criticism, including calls for his resignation.

The CEO’s failure to recognize the hyper-sensitive nature of the language debate in Québec these days is shocking to many, but not particularly surprising considering how French Québec is not the priority market it once was for a growing number of business leaders and marketers. C’est dommage.

My first assignment in advertising, almost 40 years ago, was on General Foods’ Sanka decaffeinated coffee. The campaign running in English Canada was an adapted version of an American campaign featuring Robert Young—best known for playing the titular character in Marcus Whelby, M.D.—pitching Sanka to those with caffeine-induced jitters (see it below).

In French Quebec, a separate campaign (also below) presented Sanka as the solution to drinking more of what you enjoy without getting high. The catchy slogan was Sankalcul (without counting). It was developed by the agency’s Montreal office, which interacted directly with the brand group in Toronto. The ROI was closely monitored over the years, and the brand’s performance in this important regional market justified the additional spending on separate creative.

This type of arrangement was based on the Twin-Bed Theory: Canada’s two advertising communities sleeping in the same room, but in separate beds.

The expression was coined in the 1960s by Jacques Bouchard, often referred to as the father of Quebec advertising, and it gave rise to a vibrant advertising sector in the province. Look through the CASSIES library, or the more recent Effies winners, and you’ll find many examples of made-in-Quebec campaigns for national and global brands that delivered significant value under this sleeping arrangement. It also set the stage for agencies like Cossette, Taxi, Sid Lee, and lg2, to name a few, to become successful national and international players exporting Quebec’s creativity.

While both advertisers and Quebec-based agencies benefited, this approach also led to failed experiments. Creating separate advertising for Quebec, often relying on humour and celebrities, was never a guarantee of success. Having a sound strategy and carefully assessing whether the market’s differences outweigh the similarities has always been a prerequisite.

But as a result of globalization, shrinking budgets, and a shift from traditional advertising to other forms of communications with more short-term effects, few brands today have the luxury of adopting a separate approach for Québec. While there are exceptions, I’ve seen the industry move from twin beds to a double bed (often involving double shoots) where we adapt campaigns for the French market. More recently, however, we seem to be sleeping on the sofa bed, where the Quebec market is often hidden out of sight and therefore out of mind.

“We’ll focus on Québec next year as part of our ethnic marketing effort.”

“We need to get these YouTube videos dubbed in French to comply with our new diversity and inclusion policy.”

These are real comments from clients.

I’m all for being inclusive and reaching various population segments where opportunities exist. I also understand that for some organizations, “Québec is not the primary cultural market…” as a financial CMO once told me, “…wealthy Chinese Canadians are.”

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with labelling a group representing a quarter of the population an ethnic market. After all, Hispanics and Latinos living in the United States represent close to 20% of the overall population, and marketers consider them an important ethnic market. But what this underscores is how marketing to French Quebec—a market with often unrealized potential—can be an afterthought instead of a strategic imperative for business leaders desperate to generate growth.

It’s also revealing that, in my experience, senior marketers new to this country, and usually with experience in Europe, as opposed to executives who’ve spent years in Canada (including those with French names like Rousseau), are more likely to view multicultural marketing as a normal part of conducting business across regions, instead of simply an exercise in language localization.

There’s no single path or magic formula to successful brand building efforts in French Québec, or anywhere else for that matter. But what is non-debatable is that unless careful thought is given to marketing in French Quebec early in the strategy and creative development process, you might be wasting your money. And wasting a golden opportunity to grow share in a sizeable market.

Like most missed opportunities, it might eventually keep you up at night.