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Pardon My French, Quebec, But Your Language Laws Are Ridiculous

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For years, I always thought my friends up in Canada were exaggerating when they'd talk about how fiercely protective the province of Quebec -- through its official language watchdog The Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) -- was of its French language. There were stories filled with references to eating chiens chauds (literally 'hot... dogs'), watching their favorite quart-arrière (quarterback) and having to stop for signs that read "Arrêt," despite the fact that they say "Stop" in every other French-speaking country in the world.

I always found these anecdotes simply funny, until I heard about the office's recent attempt to force major American retailers like Walmart, Costco, The Gap, Guess, Old Navy and Best Buy, to amend their brand names to include a French phrase/slogan that would clearly articulate what the company is selling. Not only would these brands have to change their signage -- they'd also have to spend millions of bucks to update all their marketing materials, packaging, labels, price tags, and so on. All for what? To dilute their trademarks?

And that was when the brand guy in me got a little -- how do you say -- "PO'ed" (pardon my French). I mean, if I moved to Quebec, would I have to change my name to Gregoire?

The OQLF claimed they were just ensuring their Francization laws were now simply being respected, even though it had not uttered a peep when those companies first started operating in the province. But their attempt was made very adversarial by threats of fines, denial of government subsidies/contracts or even suspension of the certificates of compliance necessary to operate a business in Québec.

Not surprisingly, the American companies targeted responded with a stinging lawsuit, questioning the entirety of the premise and timing of the OQLF's nefarious undertaking. And why wouldn't they?

  • We know full well it often takes years and many millions of marketing dollars, to create a distinctive and memorable brand name. It is a huge investment that cannot be toyed with on what appears to be a whim.
  • The strength of a trademark -- especially an international one -- correlates most strongly with its consistent, if not uniform, presentation and application throughout its markets.
  • Brand equity, brand recognition and brand valuation are now readily acknowledged as vitally important elements of a brand's overall worth.

The OQLF outlined four ways for brands to alter their names. Unfortunately, each and every one of them poses serious threats to their brand trademarks and global credibility. Here's how:

1. Attaching a French word that would describe what the American company sells/does.

Holds great potential to be visually awkward on signage. How would French descriptors even help in the first place? Would Habits The Gap (literally 'Clothes The Gap') or Le Magasin Walmart somehow get a potential Quebec shopper any closer to understanding what either company sells (assuming they've never heard of them)?

2. Creating a French version of the American Trademark

  • Doable and not altogether uncommon (see Green Giant/Géant Vert in France or KFC/Poulet Frit Kentucky in Quebec).
  • But this option would not work for a Walmart or J. Crew or Starbucks or any proper name brand.
  • You risk creating a name that has no visual or etymological connection to its original brands at all (see Staples/Bureau en Gros. Can Whole Foods/Nourritures Entières be far behind?).
3. Creating a multiple word slogan, all in French that would describe what the American Company sells

If a single French word could potentially be awkward, imagine what multiple descriptive words will look like! With modern retailers increasingly broadening their product mixes (Urban Outfitters -- to pick just one example -- sells everything from clothing to books to jewelry to cameras and vinyl records) to include complementary and lifestyle products, how could this strategy effectively communicate the totality of a retailer's offerings?

4. Keeping the original American brand name but reducing its size dramatically and slotting it under its far larger, translated-into-French name

This is clearly the worst option of the bunch. Imagine a sign with two brands on it, one saying Vieille Marine and directly below it, in much smaller letters, the words Old Navy. It would be chaos on signage, nor would that in any way clarify to a potential consumer what it is the brand sells or does.

So nice of you to offer these suggestions, Quebec. But do you really think that Walmart is going to become Le Magasin Walmart just for your shoppers? Even the "real" French are less stringent about their language laws -- and that's saying a lot. Don't get me wrong: I find it admirable of you to want to preserve your French heritage. But as a brand professional I also find it wholly naïve. I mean, when a brand invests millions and millions of dollars in establishing a name, why would they risk devaluing its international recognition by changing it for one small region of the world?

Furthermore, while there was certainly a time in our civilization's history where a language only applied to a specific, corresponding culture, in this day an age, the high degree of exposure, interaction and connectivity afforded us (in large part thanks to technology) has allowed language to mutate to such a high degree that it has effectively decoupled from culture. That is to say: a culture that spawned a language, no longer necessarily defines it.

Language adapts very quickly to changing environments and imports heavily from other languages it comes in contact with. And we know that centuries of close proximity to America has enabled many English words to migrate over into French. To assume that they would need English retail signage translated into French is thus, well, silly. After all, over here in America, we're not translating Le Pain Quotidien into "The Daily Bread" or "Le Chateau" to "The Castle." Trying to legislate language is not only virtually impossible, it shows a willful disregard for the power of language and its free exchange between societies, as a continuing catalyst for cultural and creative growth.

And for the record, I think that Gregg is a helluva nicer name than Gregoire. Just saying.