Adapting your Brand to the Francophone Market: How to Avoid the Loblaws Disaster

Loblaws — Adapting a brand for Quebec in French

If you’re considering to open new stores on Quebec’s soil, you should think about how your brand will be received by the francophone market. There is no unique recipe, but one thing is sure: you have to put some thought into it before you make the big move. Let’s take a look at success stories… and stories no company wants to be part of.

What happened with Loblaws

In 1998, the Ontarian grocer Loblaws bought the Provigo banner in Quebec. First of all, this is rarely considered as good news by Quebecers, since they generally do not like to be told what to do by Toronto head offices (no offence, it’s a matter of History with a big “H”!). So Loblaws started with one strike.

Gaétan Frigon, a great name in the grocery sector in the province, gave the first warning. He lamented the fact that decisions were made in Ontario without consideration for Quebec’s specific needs.

The grocery store did not do well over the years. In a survey conducted by Headspace and published on Canadian Grocer, only 2.8% of francophone Quebecers reported going most often to Loblaws (compared to 28% to IGA and 16.4% to Metro).

And one of the reasons was that people did not feel attracted to the brand : “Loblaws has done alright among anglophones in the province, ”but never really caught on as a go-to destination among French-speaking Quebecers,”says Éric Blais, president of Toronto-based Headspace Marketing. ” This is why in 2005, Loblaws decided to go change for Provigo Le Marché, a name that resonated more with this market.

Let’s take a deeper look at this case. The name “Loblaws” ends with a sound that does not exist in French : “aw”. This combination of letters found in a lot of English words (straw, flaw, saw, etc.) is phonetically strange for francophone. More specifically, “aw” is a long vowel (ɔ:) that has no exact equivalent in French (the sounds “ɔ” [mort, rhum] or “ɑ” [bas, pâte] are the closest). It is not the only factor why people did not adhere to the brand, but it probably explains part of the problem.

So this is how a well-known Canadian brand died in Quebec. But rest assured, there are great success stories!

Great Brand Adaptations

Some companies decide to go all-in by completely changing their brand for the French-speaking consumers.

  • Staples: Bureau en gros
  • Shoppers Drugmart: Pharmaprix
  • Mark’s: L’Équipeur

I salute those initiatives. These companies had almost no choice to change for a French name in Quebec because their original brand is too typically English. These are great solutions, but the disadvantage is they require to keep two brands alive, which represents more costs.

Less Costly: a Bilingual Solution

Companies may simply have a bilingual brand:

  • Hamster
  • Dynamite
  • Garage

Some brands are easily adapted to French:

  • The Source: La Source
  • Fabricville (Fabric refers to the material in English, but in French, it can sound like a derivation of the verb fabriquer [to make]. When I was young and did not understand English well, I thought this brand meant “the city to make things’’, which actually makes a lot of sense!)

Others are invented brands that resonate well both in English and French:

  • Aldo
  • Zara
  • Parasuco

The Mystery of English Brands That Made Their Way

There is always an exception to the rule, I guess! Some brands broke into the francophone market even though they dramatically sound English and are even hard to pronounce for us.

  • Toys“R”Us: You cannot start to imagine how French speakers demolish this name! The funny thing is the day kids can pronounce it right, they’re too old to want to go anymore.
  • Home Depot or Home Hardware: For some reason I don’t understand, we tend to accept English brands for hardware stores and equipment (Black & Decker, Greenworks, Craftsman…).
  • Canadian Tire: This case is still a mystery to me. My leading hypothesis: the French translation “Pneu canadien” just sounds too silly, so we embraced the English brand!

Based on this general overview, I would recommend business owners to think about globalization from day one. You might not want to expand to other countries tomorrow, but if you choose a brand that can be easily adapted to other languages or that is not strongly linked to a specific language, you will save on marketing and production costs later on. Yes, English is the common language of business; but a brand is not just about business, it’s also about engagement and bonding–about love, after all!

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