Adapting your brand to enter a foreign market 5 tips from the Michaels Stores’ introduction in Québec

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In September 2012, American arts and crafts retailer Michaels simultaneously opened seven stores in Québec, Canada’s French-speaking province, in one of the most anticipated retail openings in Canada. At all stores, hundreds of enthusiastic crafters lined up hours before the grand openings. VIP nights attracted celebrities, media, and influencing crafters. Media coverage was overwhelmingly positive and local politicians praised the Michaels’ way. Paula Puleo, the CMO of Michaels, declared the introduction a model for entries into other countries.

Yet this successful launch did not happen overnight; in fact, the process began three years prior, when Michaels decided to invest in an impressive cross-cultural communication program. It is common to see foreign businesses come to Québec and make only the minimum effort to adapt to Québec’s culture. Michaels truly invested in Québec.

This is not the first time CASACOM has helped organizations both Canadian, US and from other countries, adapt to Québec. Each time, it is always a learning experience. Below are our five top tips for any company that wants to enter a culturally different market like Quebec:

1) Adapt your brand from the top down: Michaels operates 1100 stores throughout the US and English Canada. For the company’s executive team, Québec was seen right away as part of the international market, just as Sweden would be. Therefore, they were crystal clear that in order to succeed here, they had to adapt everything they do in terms of language, culture, business practices, and human resources management, to name a few. With this mindset well communicated from top to bottom, the focused, cross-functional team within Michaels’ headquarters worked together in an integrated effort and took the required decisions to do everything that was needed to assure success.

2) Partner with local experts that will tell you the truth: One of their first actions was to select, along with their main PR firm SPM, CASACOM as a strategic facilitator. We got to work two years before the big day, which gave us the time we needed to do the job well. Our first task: explain the Québec difference, identify potential issues and suggest solutions. Every manager involved in the project was guided by the best intentions and was committed to do what it took to succeed. For communicators like us, this is gold.

3) Understand the local consumer through local eyes: The Michaels team wanted to grasp all the subtleties of the retail market. A Québec research company conducted focus groups, shop-alongs, and a survey. The results brought out several unique features of the market, along with a rich local perspective. The products offered, store design, promotional strategies and messaging were adjusted as a result.

4) In French, of course: The compliance to the Charter of the French Language was Michaels’s main concern. They needed to translate 35,000 sales units and all communication materials (training, suppliers, customers, etc.). This colossal project lasted three years. But for Michaels that was no enough. They wanted to show their sincere interest in connecting with the people of Québec. They adopted a slogan in French: “Tout pour vos projects créatifs” (Everything for your creative projects). Displayed on all storefronts and on promotional materials, this slogan not only conveys Michaels’s corporate brand, but also sensitivity to Québec’s Francophone nature. Few foreign retailers today have French taglines.

5) Michaels represented well here: We knew that the company had to have a Québec face, with a Québec name. It quickly named a Managing Director for Québec, who became the company’s spokesperson. A HR director was also hired early on. In addition, we conducted a highly successful digital campaign with a jury of local crafting influencers to find a Québec “Michaels Ambassador”. The authentic Québécoise Micheline Petit is now the creative face of the company.

With this solid business strategy, based on a very clear vision, the promotional activities that we implemented to connect with the Québec consumers were a great success. Carrying through with a clear vision pays off in business.