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Target take note: Quebec market tricky for outsiders

Exteriors of a Target store under construction at the Square One Shopping Centre in Mississauga, Ont. are photographed Jan 17 2013.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

For years, customers of Target Corp. have summed up its cheap chic image with the faux French nickname, "Tar-zhay." But the retailer has never actually had to work in translation -- until this year.

Quebec will be among the wave of store openings rippling across Canada in 2013, but as Target prepares, it may want to consider a study just released on the very distinct consumer attitudes of la belle province.

The research by Headspace Marketing Inc. surveyed 3,000 people to identify consumer sentiment in Quebec versus the rest of Canada. It found that brand loyalty -- and an intense resistence to switching brands -- is far more pronounced in Quebec than anywhere else. Québécois are also far less welcoming of things that are considered foreign; making it a particularly tricky market for companies expanding there from elsewhere.

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But, according to Headspace president Eric Blais, this local, "chez nous" sentiment is also an opportunity for marketers.

One brand that has done it right is Home Depot. In 2011, twelve years after launching in the province, the retailer was having trouble connecting with consumers. It was stuck at third place behind homegrown stores Rona and Reno Depot.

Cossette decided to create 120 videos, filmed discussions with customers talking about their needs, and then encouraged them to share the videos through social media -- and some on TV. That allowed for the brand to present itself in a local voice.

That year, in-store visits rose 43 per cent compared to 2010, sales increased more than 30 per cent, and Home Depot moved into second place in Quebec.

By contrast, Cara Operations Ltd. found itself a "tourist" in Quebec with its Kelsey's chain, Mr. Blais said. Cara has stayed away from Quebec with its Swiss Chalet chain, not daring to challenge incumbent chicken joint St-Hubert. But its attempt to bring the "neighbourhood bar and grill" to Quebec ultimately failed; the company withdrew from the market in 2008.

Target seems aware of the challenges. Currently, its research shows that brand awareness is 92 per cent in Canada, versus the "high 70s" in Quebec, director of marketing Livia Zufferli said in a recent interview.

"We spent a lot of time ensuring that we are entering that market in a way that is appropriate and genuine for that market," Ms. Zufferli said. "A lot of research, a lot of team members. A lot of new organizational structures designed to support this new multilanguage capacity that we have."

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As Target grapples to win over brand-loyal consumers, it may want to also focus on how it speaks to Quebec. The survey found that "taking measures to simplify my life" was rated far higher by francophone Quebec respondents than by anglophones in the rest of Canada. Marketers that tap into a message of simplicity -- as the provincial liquor retailer has done, for example, with colour-coded tags to classify its wines not by region or varietal but a simplified set of flavours.

"If Target is looking to push their private labels, help consumers in Quebec understand very simply and quickly what value they offer," Mr. Blais said. "There's a tendency in marketing to identify all these value propositions, and tell the whole story. They won't pay attention. They won't dig deep. They won't give you much time. Don't tell your whole story; make it super simple."

What companies reckon with in Quebec

Consultancy Headspace Marketing surveyed roughly 3,000 people nationwide to examine the different consumer attitudes in la belle province, compared to the rest of Canada. Some of their findings:

Brand loyalty

"I consider myself to be very brand loyal"

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60% - francophone Quebecois who agree with that statement

44.3% - English-speaking respondents in the rest of Canada who agree

"Once I find a brand I like, it is very difficult to get me to change brands"

71.4% - francophone Quebecois

61.6% - anglophone rest of Canada

Local specificity

"My province or my region is an important part of my personal identity."

68.9% - francophone Quebecois

55.4% - anglophone rest of Canada

"I prefer to buy products and services from companies that make an effort to cater to the specific preferences and needs of people in my locality."

67.4% - francophone Quebecois

49% - anglophone rest of Canada

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