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Vive la Différence in Canada

Many brands have asked us what it takes to be successful in the Canadian market. The truth is that a brand’s success in Canada can hinge on how it executes across English-and French-speaking audiences. When there is a problem, it’s often the result of an English-speaking brand failing to demonstrate an understanding of its French-speaking audience. From a verbal identity standpoint, this failure usually manifests in one or all of these aspects of the brand: the name, tagline, messaging, and/or tone of voice. Getting any of these wrong can mean the brand may not be embraced in French-speaking markets.

So what must brands keep top of mind when their Canadian audiences represent both official languages? Here are some insights we’ve gleaned from working with clients to create brands for Canada’s unique market:

1. Ideally, brand names should be bilingual—that is, one name that works well in both languages. That single name cannot trigger any negative associations in either language. It’s not an easy task, but it’s well worth the effort. McDonald’s, for example, recently came up with a name for a sandwich that works perfectly in both French and English: the new CBO. In English, CBO stands for chicken, bacon, onion. In French speaking markets, it stands for croustillant (crispy), bacon, oignons (onion).

2. When bilingual names aren’t possible, bi-cultural names should be considered. These are names that use words and ideas that are clearly understood in each language, but rooted in one. For instance, Bon Voyage, for a national travel agent.

3. Don’t forget to do your linguistic homework. A translator wanted to adapt the tagline “you’ll be amazed” for an air carrier and chose the Quebec idiom “vous n’en reviendrez pas,” which, figuratively means “you’ll be amazed,” but literally means “you’ll never come back.” Not exactly the tagline you want to read before you board a plane. In another example, GM averted controversy by launching the Buick LaCrosse in Canada as the Buick Allure. The reason? For French-speaking Canadians, la crosse is slang for rip-off and self-love. GM eventually decided it was safe to align the name globally, and the Allure name was replaced with LaCrosse in Canada. But good on GM for checking first.

4. French Canadians like brands that reflect their cultural context. For example, St-Hubert’s restaurants were named because the very first St-Hubert opened on St-Hubert’s street in Montreal. They also like names that reflect history and embody rich family stories, such as Bombardier or Eatons.

5. French Canadians are socially minded and engaged. They get behind campaigns that set out to right wrongs and provoke meaningful conversations, such as Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty.

6. French Canadians appreciate cleverness. Good, intelligent puns are always welcomed in French-speaking Canada. Clover Leaf’s translation of the Tuna Snacks brand becomes GueuleThon in French. Gueuleton means snack. The translator simply added “h” to create wordplay that brings a smile.

7. French Canadians know when a translation hasn’t been given enough thought, or bluntly follows the English structure. When one company translated beef liver bites from English to Canadian French, the meaning of bite changed to wounded. It always pays off when a company hires a translator who takes the time to consider the company’s vision, image, and branding, and comes up with an original tagline that works effectively in both target languages.

8. Even though most people in Quebec and other French-speaking markets in Canada understand English, they feel very strongly about protecting their culture and language. They may be insulted if a company doesn’t make the effort to offer a French name or French content. They’ll also be less likely to buy, talk about, or recommend the brand.

9. French Canadians can be very quick to parody a brand that seems ridiculous to them. They use social media, the web, and TV to make fun of brands that don’t seem to understand them.

Winning over both English- and French-speaking markets is really a matter of taking the time to learn about your audiences. Show that your brand truly cares about their wants, needs, and cultural nuances. And remember that, as global becomes more local, it’s more critical than ever to run linguistic checks (using trained, in-market linguists) to ensure your names and taglines don’t mean something offensive or embarrassing in any of the many languages your brand touches. Always remember—respecting culture and language can make a world of difference for the success of your brand.

Contributors

Senior Director, Creative
Verbal Consultant