France: French brands abroad

Should French brands trade on sex, style and joie de vivre? That depends, Olivier Altmann says.

How should a French brand handle its communications abroad? By openly expressing, even proudly asserting, its Frenchness? Or by stressing that it represents a global company rather than a country-specific one? Should it stick to its core positioning, or cast itself in a different light to break into new markets?

Of course, there is no single right answer. It depends on so many things. On the one hand, we may be talking about a luxury perfume, on the other, the launch of a mass-market car.

But before going any further, it's worth taking a look at the various cliches associated with France.

First and foremost, France (which is the world's number-one tourist destination, by the way) is seen as a country with an enjoyable, laid-back lifestyle, one adorned with fine foods wherever you go. This often plays into the hands of companies in the food sector, particularly those in the business of making cheese, bread and wine.

Some years ago, the marketers behind Boursin were shrewd enough to turn this winning combination into an advertising slogan: "Du pain, du vin, du Boursin." The slogan worked very well for a while, but inevitably the famous cheese's brand image has now moved on. Nonetheless, the same slogan still appeals - and sells - abroad.

Much the same can be said of a mass-produced Camembert cheese such as Coeur de Lion. To the British it may conjure romantic images of French country life, but not so in France. Here, the message is about giving a crude pasteurised product a bit of character, in this case (perhaps oddly, for a cheese) the heart of a lion.

In contrast, Bonne Maman jams, now available in more than 100 countries worldwide, skilfully plays on nostalgia both inside and outside of France. But a global brand such as Danone has no need to stress its national roots. After all, US, Mexican or Polish consumers tempted to buy Danone yoghurt couldn't care less about the green pastures of Normandy. They just want to be sure the product is healthy and tastes good.

Another stubborn cliche is that the French are sex-obsessed. Needless to say, this works to the advantage of French lingerie brands such as Aubade or Chantelle.

Less obvious, however, is its ability to boost car sales. In the UK, the "Nicole? ... Papa!" saga of the early 90s tapped into the foreign perception of French women as flirtatious, sexy and feminine. The ad made a sex symbol of the actress Estelle Skornik, an objet desire of the skimpy dress she wore in the ad and a top-ten-selling car of the Clio for the first time in 15 years for Renault.

For the French brands that lean rather more heavily on the sex angle, things can get a little stickier. They are compelled to tone down their advertising when they cross the Channel, and even more so when they set about targeting more puritanical countries, say, in the Middle East.

This is especially true of luxury brands such as Cartier, Dior and Louis Vuitton that make France and the French the envy of people the world over.

In fact, many of the "porno chic" ads that flooded French magazines five years ago had to be repackaged in softer editions for export to spare the blushes of readers (and no doubt advertisers) overseas.

But whether the message is in-your-face or seductively subtle, the image of France that the big names in fashion, perfume and Champagne want to convey abroad is invariably one of elan, of effortless sophistication.

Another trait widely considered French is creativity. It should come as no surprise that Philippe Stark designs Thomson television sets, or that Renault, rechristened a "creator of automobiles", has been promoted abroad by Jean-Paul Gaultier, the enfant terrible of the fashion world.

There are ample signs of the French inventive spirit in any Renault Espace, Twingo or Scenic.

But the trouble is, in a face-off with their German competitors, French car-makers have to ensure they measure up in terms of performance and quality. Otherwise, their products will be dismissed as superficial or gimmicky, a triumph of style over substance. In other industries, however, major innovations such as the TGV, the (admittedly pan-European) Airbus A380, the puncture-proof Michelin tyre and the smart-card have all helped improve the image of France as a pioneering hi-tech country. Despite the prevalence of deeply entrenched cultural stereotypes, it seems attitudes are changing.

It is true that French brands often move away from their initial positioning when they turn their attentions to foreign markets. Those that can capitalise on France's solid reputation in specific areas (such as food, wine, luxury or sex appeal) are usually eager to draw attention to their roots - much more than they do at home. On the other hand, in the same way that Coca-Cola is seen as global first and American second, French brands aiming for truly global reach and status tend not to celebrate their roots. They are more likely to downplay their Frenchness so they can win over even Francophobes. Indeed, while a brand can't very well deny its background, it isn't obliged to use it as a selling-point either. It's all a question of context.

Unsurprisingly, when the political climate takes a turn for the worse, too much national character can prove to be a serious liability. There were attempts to boycott French goods in the US at the time of the war in Iraq and following the nuclear testing in Mururoa, enabling protest groups to use consumption as an effective weapon. In such cases, the national aura that previously enhanced a brand may suddenly become a handicap. It's at times like those that you wish you were selling something neutral - such as Swiss chocolate.

- Olivier Altmann is the creative director of Publicis Conseil.