—A recent Columbia campaign about goats—or was it G.O.A.T.s?—left some Quebeckers bemused, and reminded Éric Blais about the challenges of English marketing in French Quebec—
The headline we created had a clever, attention-grabbing double meaning, and the client loved it. He expressed his enthusiasm this way: “It’s got this, how do you say… double Nintendo.” He meant to say “double-entendre.”
His remark showed how the nuances of language can sometimes be difficult to understand. And while double meanings and wordplay can make an otherwise bland ad a bit more engaging, they can be tricky to adapt into other languages.
I recently saw an outdoor poster for Bell Fibe in Montreal with a line claiming that it’s a faster alternative to the other option, which has a slowness that’s “accablante”. The word accablante—an obvious reference to cable—means overwhelming or oppressive. That play on words would likely get lost if Bell ran an English version of the same poster.
This is often a challenge when adapting English creative for French Canada. It is rarely easily solved, but when you do, it can lead to a message that’s as strong as the original, if not stronger.
But more often than not, it’s a more bland version. The cleverness usually gets lost in translation, leaving most Quebeckers indifferent. Still, some French versions of international campaigns can leave no one indifferent. Some for the wrong reason.
Language is a sensitive topic in Quebec, and brand marketers sometimes unwittingly step in it with their ads.
Columbia Sportswear’s recent advertisement in downtown Montreal created a stir due to a translation that seems to lose its intended meaning in French. The ad encouraged outdoor enthusiasts to “Be The Goat,” a slogan that carries a dual meaning in English as “goat” is also an acronym for “greatest of all time.” However, the French version “Soyez la chèvre” missed this double entendre.
According to Columbia, this translation was not a misstep, but a deliberate attempt to associate the performance of their footwear with the agility and adaptability of a mountain goat. They say the ad wasn’t meant as a referral to the term “Greatest Of All Time.”
“We certainly don’t want to make that statement, that we’re the greatest of all times. We certainly hope we’re making a great hiking boot that helps people get outdoors,” Scott Trepanier, the company’s vice-president of brand strategy, told Global News, just one of several outlets that covered the story. “The intention of the ad campaign is to really be the goat… to be the goat who is getting out there enjoying the outdoors while being stable and protected on the trail.”
I get it. The goat is a creature known for its adventurous and sturdy nature, metaphorically representing the qualities of their hiking shoes. They only intended to celebrate the goat spirit—frolicking in the wild with feet as stable as their hiking boots.
But that’s not how it was received by some who, even though they speak French, know the English double-meaning and concluded Columbia’s ad was a faux pas. And that, in the end, is all that matters.
Montrealers strolling by the posters and banners at the Hudson’s Bay store on Ste-Catherine street reacted to this linguistic snafu in the most charmingly Québécois way possible—with bemused laughter on social media.
While some saw the humorous side, others remained in a haze of puzzlement. Advertising savants across Quebec gave a collective “tut-tut,” arguing that it requires a dash of creativity, a touch of cultural sensitivity, and a grasp of the local idiom.
I was one of them, and Trepanier, to his credit, took the time to reach out on LinkedIn. He also pointed out that a French-speaking Montreal-based team was responsible for the translation. But marketers shouldn’t have to explain the strategy behind their ads to the public or the media.
It’s a familiar tale in Quebec, where the artful dance between French and English often results in a few stepped-on toes. With a heightened sensitivity to the status of French in the province, Quebeckers are particularly attuned to these linguistic lapses, turning them into media feasts.
No matter an advertiser’s intentions, the world perceives through its own lens. In this case, Columbia’s cheery “be the goat” was less a rallying cry and more a raised eyebrow moment for many. So, whether it’s a wily strategy or a translation blip, the reality is that it stirred up chatter in a province where language is always an hot topic.
This just goes to show that when it comes to the tricky terrain of language translation, localization, creative adaption and transcreation, even the nimblest of goats—be they Columbia’s hiking boots or their ad campaign—can stumble.
Éric Blais is president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec. He can be reached at feedback@headspacemarketing.