Honda hit a raw nerve in Québec last week. It signaled it would shift gears after riding with its advertising spokesperson, comic superstar Martin Matte, for the past thirteen years. What should be viewed as just another business decision by marketers intent on improving their return on investment and adapting to a changing advertising and media landscape, turned into a PR mess for the car maker in this critical regional market.
Here's what appears to have unfolded based on various media reports, social media posts and a published interview with Honda's regional manager for Québec.
Martin Matte was first to announce the "big news" (his words) on his Facebook page. He thanked the two agencies (BOS and LG2) which he says he learned to love. He ended his post with the wish that Honda will one day return to making advertising in Québec for Quebeckers. With over 345K fans and 38K Twitter followers, the news spread faster than a Civic going zero to sixty.
This was no longer about an advertiser adopting a different strategy for a regional market. The headline of an article published the next day in Marketing Magazine - which has since been removed - read “Honda parts ways with LG2, centralizing account in Toronto”. Quoted in the article, the head of Honda’s agency LG2 predicted that Honda’s sales in Québec would likely decline without original Québec advertising. Infopresse, the Québec advertising trade publication, had a similar headline “Honda cessera sa création publicitaire au Québec” (Honda will cease creating advertising in Québec). That was just the marketing trade media. La Presse, Le Huffington Post Québec, Le Journal de Montréal, as well as bloggers and the business press, amplified the “big news” Martin Matte had announced on Facebook. La Presse’s even published a piece by Franco Nuovo about the “divorce” and revealed that Martin Matte did not know the reason for the decision. Suddenly, a business decision about a media mix and the use of a spokesperson became what was described by an agency exec as “a sad day for the Honda dealers and for the advertising industry in Québec”.
Given how the story had been distorted, the head of Honda’s operations in Québec, Pierre Langevin, moved into damage control with media interviews aimed at reassuring Quebeckers that Honda’s advertising creative and media investments in Québec would remain despite his plans to shift away from brand image television advertising to more product-focussed advertising via print, web, radio and out-of-home posters.
What seems to be getting lost in this story is what Martin Matte himself wrote to his Facebook fans when he went public with the “big news”. He wrote “I admit that two years ago, I told them that I was thinking about stopping, while it was still good, to avoid stretching this. They convinced me to stay on for another two years with an optional additional year.” (The translation is ours.)
A great campaign that, one would assume, produced results for Honda had perhaps run its course.
The story should have ended there but it didn’t.
The shock waves triggered by Honda’s decision combined with Air Canada’s recent decision to part ways with Montreal-based agency Marketel after 27 years to give the business to a Toronto agency, got industry commentators asking if it’s indeed the end of made-in-Québec only for Québec advertising. Could the pendulum have swung back? Could we be heading back to the days of poorly adapted advertising from English Canada or the U.S.? Could the legacy of Jacques Bouchard, regarded as the father of Québec advertising, be wasted?
Perhaps. But that’s an issue few marketers in the rest-of-Canada and the U.S. care about.
Without conducting an exhaustive study, anyone observing the advertising landscape in Québec today compared to the 90s would likely conclude that there are less national and global brands creating Québec specific advertising campaigns. Many brands like Pepsi and The Home Depot still invest in local campaigns. Some marketers who made the investment in Québec-only advertising were disappointed with the results and reverted back to adaptations. Many others have come to the conclusion that Québec is simply not a priority market even when it might represent significant growth potential. They have a presence in the province but they look for the most cost effective way to support their business. And that, for many, is achieved by adapting their national strategies and brand communications for the Québec market. It’s about return-on-investment. Period.
There are also many marketers who believe that national and global advertising platforms carefully adapted to resonate with Québec consumers can be as effective, and at times more so, than campaigns created specifically for Québec. It’s also not always an all-or-nothing approach: some will take a national campaign and “activate” it differently in Québec to meet specific objectives there.
In the end, building successful brands in Québec is about knowing when to adopt, adapt or create for the market. It’s been our firm’s credo for the past ten years. It doesn’t always make us popular in Québec but it makes business sense.