HOME FOREWORD: HOMO CONSUMENS QUEBECENSIS

By definition, Quebec consumers are Quebecers. They are influenced by 6 Vital (and fundamental) Roots, broken down into 36 (specific) Heartstrings.

When six million consumers exhibit behaviours that differ from those of their 56 million French cousins and the 225 million Anglophones all around them we can safely say they’re unusual, or Quebecer, if you will.

As obvious as it may seem, this main character trait of homo consumens quebecensis will become much more than a simple adjective we use in quotation marks. It’s the basis for all the Heartstrings.

On top of a background based on conflicting historical and geographical considerations, what makes Quebecers special is that if left to their own devices, they will forego tradition and define themselves by the products they choose to consume on a daily basis.

As far as consumerism goes, Quebecers almost always like things a lot more or a lot less than English Canadian or American consumers. You will soon get sick of me repeating what follows, but the world of the Quebecer is based on contradiction.

In my experience, the data gathered as part of scientific research conducted to identify consumer habits is usually only valid for a few months before new research identifies an opposite trend. And that’s part of what makes Quebec consumers Quebecers. For Quebecers, facts that contradict each other often complement each other as well.

Our ethnologists are trying very hard to catalogue Quebec society according to classical models coined by people like Weber, Lévy-Bruhl, Reisman and Clark, but they just can’t do it. Jacques Languirand and Marcel Rioux, two discriminating Quebecers, have totally opposite views of Apollonian and Dionysian societies and how they apply to Quebec. These fraternal amenities are actually quite common. But regardless of the issue being discussed, all debates point to the fact that we are Quebecers.

We are contradictory Quebecers who get worked up into a state of joyeux calvaire (happy suffering), start quiet revolutions, vote blue (Parti Québécois) in Quebec and red (Liberal) in Ottawa and who once were simultaneously the primary source of missionaries and the most foul-mouthed people on earth.

And we’re ambivalent Quebecers too! “Quebec took a while to catch up to modern times,” said Quebec political scientist Léon Dion. “Pre- and post-industrial realities still coexist despite usually contradicting themselves. In many ways Quebecers are operating in both the age of workshops and the age of automation at the same time.”

Quebec advertisers instinctively know that Quebec culture, not unlike many other cultures, has its own communications channels governed by taboos, social status, and sexual, religious and political barriers. They also realise there’s a whole set of signals Quebecers have learned to react to as participants in a common culture, and that they’re just as effective as the bells were for Pavlov’s dogs.

As early as the 1950s certain Quebec advertisers already knew that merely translating English Canadian campaigns led to de-culturalization in Quebec. Also, in an effort to promote Quebec ad creative, these same advertisers would always bring their official list of differences between English-speaking and French-speaking consumers when they went to Toronto.

Their handbook contained no less than 50 significant differences in consumer habits supported by statistical evidence, quotes and various examples of how Quebecers were notorious for their sweet tooth and being the No. 1 consumers of molasses, chocolate chip cookies, Coca-Cola, maple butter, assorted candies and brown sugar in Canada. That was great news for Quebec dentists and it translated into a lot of work for dental hygienists, too (who estimate that 81% of the people in Quebec have bad teeth).

These micro-market records still stand today, except maybe for consumption per capita of Coca-Cola. Mexico City, which enjoys an almost tropical climate year-round, has just recently taken away top spot from Montreal by a few bottles.

The comparison game between English Canadians and French Canadians is somewhat offensive, but for the longest time (and still today) it was the only way advertisers knew how to ensure commercial success in the province.

Let’s look at another classic example of the differences between Quebec consumers and those in the rest of Canada. La Belle Province has always bought fewer frozen foods than the rest of the country. Although the province has a potential 27% market share it only consumes 8% of frozen vegetables, 9% of frozen meats and 17% of frozen juices and drinks. There is only one frozen food category where Quebec exceeds its market potential and I’m pretty sure you can guess what it is: french fries.

According to an advertiser with a great sense of humour, behavioural differences have been noticed since the Battle of the Plains of Abraham when the opposing generals took a look at each other and decided that if their respective troops both ate three meals a day, they definitely did not eat the same things.

In the July-August 1977 edition of R.N.D. Magazine a young French Canadian advertiser working for the US advertising agency J. Walter Thompson strongly advocates disembodied marketing and says that there is no such thing as a typical Quebec consumer and this 36 Heartstrings theory is not going to convince him otherwise. He will absolutely not be swayed by statistics or stubborn people and no consumer is a Quebecer.

Truth is the last of these advertising Mohicans are dying in Quebec. The province is still a market of micro-markets since the Quebec culture is made up of an entire network of regional subcultures. It would be interesting to position these differences in the Heartstrings diagram although some of them, as you can imagine, are more typical of certain regions of the province than others.

For example, we know that most avid gin drinkers live in Quebec City, that most luxury car owners call Chicoutimi home, that contrary to what you might think, there are fewer electrical appliances in Montreal households than in the rest of the province, especially in the most remote regions where they all seem to love them. This explains why less than 50% of Montreal households own colour TVs, clothes dryers and electric washers while it’s between 60% and 80% in the rest of Quebec. Sept-Îles holds most of the records in this particular market with major regional centres like Hauterive, Roberval, Chicoutimi, Matane and Rimouski not far behind.

Many national brands quickly meet their sales targets (actually selling well over the national average) in the Quebec market while others never even make a dent in it.

Certain English Canadian marketers have always chosen to ignore how different the Quebec market is because they didn’t want to have to adapt. They didn’t want the hassle (or the expense) of hiring French Canadian sales reps, using bilingual labels on their products and developing entirely different ad campaigns to appeal to Quebecers.

The Quebec market’s uniqueness is definitely a thorn in a lot of sides. Just three short years ago a marketing professor in Toronto spoke to some 300 English Canadian advertisers and said the only difference between the two types of Canadian consumers is their disposable income. At this same conference a Quebec adwoman working for a large US agency concluded that using Toronto French, meaning translating Toronto ad campaigns from English to French, when advertising in the Quebec market is more than adequate. One of my favourite examples of bad advertising in Quebec is a 1961 commercial inviting Quebec women to send in their best plum-pudding recipes (which Quebecers don’t eat).

Professor J.V. Petrof mentioned two other recent cases of total advertising catastrophes developed in Toronto and the US. First up is the Cue brand of toothpaste whose launch was a total disaster because its name sounds like a slang word for ass in French (Jean-François Pelletier also uses this example in Une publicité en quête de qualité (Advertising in search of quality). The product was marketed in Quebec despite the warnings of French Canadian advisors who knew exactly what was going to happen. Second is the ridiculous campaign for a new brand of bleach that was translated from English and promised to start a new revolution of whiteness to Quebec housewives who were already the top consumers of bleaching products in all of North America. Smart move...but then who wouldn’t want to spend a fortune on advertising the fact that Christmas will be on December 25 again this year?

Quebec has become the resting place for many of these atrocious ad campaigns. Some advertisers, including major ones, have always found it more convenient to establish inconsequential similarities between the two Canadian markets despite their blindingly obvious differences.

So when anyone wants to communicate with Quebec in order to sell a product or idea, the first thing they have to do is accept the fact that they’re talking to Quebecers who are automatically different because of the Heartstrings that pull at them every which way.

I didn’t start to really test Heartstrings at BCP until 1970. Before then the agency had only tugged at the Heartstrings in an intuitive way because we were more interested in using global archetypes, archaic myths and vague symbols rather than typical Quebec conventions to sell whatever it was we had to sell.

Some of our latest campaigns like Qu’est-ce qui fait donc chanter les petits Simard? (What makes the little Simards sing?), Dominion nous fait bien manger (Dominion feeds us well), C’est quoi ton code postal? (What’s your postal code?), Air Canada’s Aircaneurope, Mon bikini, ma brosse à dents (My bikini, my toothbrush), Labatt’s Lui y connaît ça (This guy really knows his stuff) and On est six millions (We’re six million strong) are all easy to decipher using the Heartstrings paradigm. I also tested the concept during major election campaigns and it was just as effective.

It’s never easy to argue with something that continually generates such impressive results.

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© 2014 – English translation and website by Lawrence Creaghan. Published online with the permission of Guérin Éditeur Ltée and the Fondation Jacques-Bouchard.