Should anyone care whether food retailer Metro has an acute accent in its name?
Yves Michaud, a well-known activist shareholder in Québec, clearly does. He filed a complaint with the Office québécois de la langue française and was quite vocal at Metro’s annual shareholder meeting held earlier this week.
Metro’s management isn’t budging. It argues that “Metro” (without an accent) has always been its trademark and is neither French nor English. From a strict legal standpoint, Metro is right and l’Office is likely to agree.
What might be surprising to some is not only the media coverage this is generating but also the views expressed in editorials by leading, pro-business publications.
Les Affaires’ François Pouliot asks “What would be the harm in giving Metro a true French name?” He argues that the retailer is a success story and a symbol of Québec Inc. After all, this wouldn’t have to be done overnight but gradually as new signs are installed so that they are “better adapted to Québec’s linguistic landscape” [The translations are mine.] Click here for the full article.
La Presse’s Vincent Brousseau-Pouliot writes that it’s difficult to understand Metro’s position on this. He suggests that Metro could keep its legal name for financial documents and for its operations in Ontario but gradually change its store signs in Québec. Click here for the full article.
Signs are expensive but the two Pouliots seem to forget that there’s far more to having two separate brand visual identities - just ask the folks at Staples/Bureau en Gros, Mark’s/L’Équipeur, Home Outfitters/Déco-Découverte, to name just a few.
Fueling this debate over accents is Quebecor’s recent public musing about adding an acute accent to its name in Québec. The media conglomerate is apparently studying the matter and will likely recommend the change to its board and shareholders.
Retailers and foodservice operators entering Québec rarely have acute accent issues but they must sometimes deal with having an apostrophe in their name. Tim Horton’s dropped the apostrophe to become Tim Hortons when it entered the Québec market. Few in the rest of Canada seemed to care about the hockey player’s name new spelling. Just as few in Québec seem to care that Restaurant McDonald’s kept the apostrophe in its name.
On the Run
Don’t get me wrong. Language issues matter a great deal in Québec when branding decisions get media attention.
ExxonMobil brands its convenience stores On the Run, unstranslated, around the world, except in Québec, where opposition from the population, despite government sanction, forced Exxon’s local subsidiary to retain the French name Marché Express.
Les Affaires’ François Pouliot claims that adding an accent to Métro would be “un bon coup de marketing” (a good marketing move).
It would be if Metro’s customers cared. Judging by the nature of readers’ comments in La Presse, it’s not clear that a majority does. Some rightly point out that even Paris’ Metro is spelled without an accent.
Even if many did care, one would have to assess the cost-benefit of implementing the name change on many more assets than simply exterior store signs? Would the brand equity gradually erode? Or worse, would customers start boycotting Metro without an accent?
I doubt it.
This is a public affairs issue at this point and it should be handled as such. How it’s handled will determine whether it becomes a marketing issue.
Here are some cases that have attracted the interest of the language watchdog or people seeking to protect the French language:
- 1996: A woman warns the owner of a Quebec pet store she might get in touch with language authorities because Peekaboo, the parrot she wanted to buy, didn't speak French.
- 1999: The Old Navy chain is asked to rename its stores "La Vieille Rivière." It never happens.
- 2000: The owner of an Indian restaurant is told he's breaking the law by having coasters for "Double Diamond," a British beer.
- 2001: Some people express disappointment that race-car driver Jacques Villeneuve calls his restaurant "Newtown."
- 2005: Language authorities say they will investigate complaints that Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay's party used the word "Go" on its campaign posters and pamphlets, as in "Go Montreal."
- 2007: Imperial Oil says it will keep its Quebec-only "Marché Express" name for its Esso gas stations after protests against a proposal to change the name to "On the Run," as the stations are known elsewhere in North America.
- 2007: Language activists decry that callers to many Quebec government offices are told to "press nine" for English before instructions are delivered in French. Some of the departments have since changed the message to put English at the end.
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