Issue 18 | March 2011

Simon Silvester

EVP Head of Planning Y&R EMEA

The United States is the home of marketing - that’s what all the textbooks say.

The US is where Coca-Cola was invented, where TV commercials were first seen, and where modern detergents first promised whiter whites.

France, on the other hand, is the country of medieval farmhouses, of foie gras and of four hundred cheeses.

Few would think of France as the home of cutting-edge marketing. But perhaps the world’s marketers ought to look more closely at France. And wonder why so many New Yorkers insist on drinking French mineral water.

Or why the kind of Tokyo woman who would never buy a foreign food or electrical item always seems to carry a $2000 French handbag.

Or why hard-nosed Chinese businessmen celebrate deals with fine French wines and cognac.

French marketing is very different to American marketing – but it is often more effective. In the cut-throat world of the 21st Century, every marketer needs to understand it.


Back in the 1840s, the world’s richest city was its first industrial city - Manchester, England. And at the top of the Manchester social ladder were its cotton mill owners.

At their dinner parties, the mill owners liked to show off their wealth. So they served wine instead of beer. And the wealthier mill owners served champagne.

But for the richest mill owners, there was still a problem.

In a world where all their peers could afford champagne, how could they show off?

The solution

In 1842, French marketers solved their problem.

They realized that there was an unmet need opening up. And so they created a much more expensive drink: vintage champagne.

Manchester’s mill owners flocked to it. Within a few years, the world was buying many more bottles at much higher prices.

Not the first time

This wasn’t the first time that a French producer made a smart, conceptual marketing move.

The French were working in this way back in the 1750s.

The French weren’t just marketing before America invented the term ‘marketing’ in 1960.

The French were marketing before America.


When an American or British marketer (the English- speaking nations are known in the rest of the world as ‘Anglo-Saxons’) sets out to differentiate a brand, they usually start with what makes their product different.

Anglo-Saxon brands are thus based on ‘10% more fibre’, or an active ingredient.

If they can’t identify a strong, sustainable advantage, quite often an Anglo-Saxon marketer will not enter a market.

Not so in France

French marketing is much purer.

Where there is a strong need, argue French marketers, there can be a strong brand.

Thus French marketers can create strong, global, premium brands out of materials as simple as water.

Or apples. Or leather.

And because they are more focussed on consumer needs, they can then make inspired leaps.

Like range-extending a water brand into skincare. Or extending skincare to appeal to women in their sixties. Or promoting a wellness resort by branding the purity of its air.

In most countries, marketing is just about spending a budget.

In France, it is a conceptual art.


‘This isn’t a brand’ say Anglo-Saxon marketers studying the label of a bottle of St. Emilion.

‘It’s a vineyard.’

They just don’t get it.

The best French brands are so authentic, they don’t look like brands.

And because they don’t look like brands, people prefer them and pay a premium for them.

  • Would people like Roquefort if it was called Smell-E-Cheez?
  • Would people value Champagne if it was called Fizzo?

People like to know things are authentic. They like them to have a history and an origin. And if they do, they value them above brands that have neither.


Marketers in other countries need to learn to cherish authenticity in their brands.

Too many of their brand names come from brand consultancies, and thereby somehow signal to the consumer that they have been created by marketing and aren’t really real.


When it comes to tech gadgets and cars, the key purchasers are men.

But with 80% of markets, the key purchasers are women.

It’s therefore puzzling that English-language marketing always talks in male jargon about ‘campaigns’, ‘targets’ and ‘assaults’.

Not so in France

The French spend much more time understanding women, and developing insights into female behaviour.

‘Some women eat chocolate when they are sad,’ observes one famous French designer. ‘And others buy clothes’.

‘In the hunter-gatherer era, men hunted and women gathered,’ observes another. ‘And that mentality is hardwired into our brains.

That’s why today men draw satisfaction from sport and videogames, and women draw theirs more from shopping.’

Understanding the female soul is central to French marketing. But marketers in other countries can’t follow on:

‘You can’t talk about seduction and l’amour fou in an Anglo- Saxon company’, says a French marketing manager. ‘They are too politically correct.’

Meanwhile, French companies have worked out how to get inside a woman’s head and charge her $300 for a scent.

And $400 for a skin cream.

Marketers in other countries need to get in touch with their feminine side.


Anglo-Saxon countries industrialized rapidly.

Cities like London grew so fast that fresh food supplies into them were inadequate for decades.

And so their inhabitants started to eat preserved foods – like pies, sausages and tinned stews.

These junk foods then became the traditional foods of Anglo-Saxon countries.

Manufacturers suffered too

Rapid industrialization had an appalling effect on Anglo-Saxon food manufacturing too.

In the 1840s, British food manufacturers thought nothing of dropping copper salts into tinned vegetables to make them look a little greener.

Or grinding up a vat of food by rolling a giant lead ball around it.

Regulation has changed things

Today, regulation has changed Anglo-Saxon food.

But the attitude is still there amongst some Anglo- Saxon marketers.

‘Research shows that consumers like ready meals better if we pour a little more palm oil into them’ say Anglo-Saxon food researchers.

‘And let’s up the sugar content.’

Not so in France

France industrialized much more slowly, and French food culture remains as strong as it was before the industrial revolution.

And as the world worries more and more about its health, the French attitude towards food is the future.

So whilst Anglo-Saxon food companies spend their time shaving the calorie count of processed foods, French food producers have a very different approach.

They simply produce healthy products in the first place.

Water. Yoghurt. Fresh fruit.

And they end up with much higher returns on capital than any processed food manufacturer.

That’s the thing about consumers today. They are looking for healthier food. Not unhealthy food with nicer packaging. Or unhealthy food with rustic advertising.

But the genuine, real thing.


French marketers’ instinct is to be honest with their customers.

And their customers are loyal to them because of it.

Marketers in other countries could learn from this.


In America, a premium brand is one that costs ten percent more than an average brand.

Luxury means a little gold on the label.

No one likes to produce something that is way out of the reach of the ordinary American.

There is something very ‘of the people and for the people’ about American marketing. And indeed the biggest successes of American marketing have been mass marketing:

  • The Model T Ford: the car for the ordinary American.
  • KFC: the restaurant everyone can afford.

Not so in France

A sense of populism has never hindered French marketers.

Puritan roots and guilt don’t prevent them from behaving in unashamedly elitist ways and producing items that no ordinary person will ever be able to afford.

A perfume for $1,000?

Voilà Madame!

A Hermès Birkin bag for $15,000?

No problem.

It doesn’t mix well with egalité and fraternité. But it does lead to high margin, sustainable brands. And rich, rich brand values. And hugely committed consumers.


Marketers in other countries could do more for their richer users:

  • In some countries, consumer incomes have risen 50% over the past ten years.

Few brands have raised their promises and prices in line. Does your marketing plan leave your customers’ money on the table?

  • Does your company keep its superpremium brands for the developed world? In emerging markets, supermarkets are creating their own superpremium private-label brands, because Western fmcg companies aren’t meeting local demand for luxury food.
  • Indeed, is your company cutting the quality of its products as it expands into emerging markets?

The French don’t think this way. For decades, French cognac houses have been producing superpremium, ultra-expensive grades of cognac and putting them on sale only in Asia.


40 million people visit the United States each year. Over 75 million visit France.

France is the biggest lifestyle showroom in the world.

And the image of France sells wine, cheese and luxury goods across the world.

Most countries struggle with their national image:

  • Britain isn’t sure whether it is a museum, or Tony Blair’s ‘cool Britannia’.
  • Poland isn’t sure whether it’s a rural idyll, or an industrial powerhouse.
  • Over sixty years after world war two, German companies still struggle whensomeone suggests they market themselves using German values.

France’s advantage is that it knows exactly what it stands for.


Marketers in other countries need to think more about the place they come from:

  • Romania needs to market itself harder as a provider of natural goods and as a tourist destination. It has a language that much of the richer half of Europe can read without problem, and unspoilt countryside to die for.
  • If you want your country to take off, look for a snowball effect: The atmosphere of Mexican restaurants sells the idea of holidays in Mexico, which leave visitors with a
  • taste for tequila, which sells more Mexican food, and which in turn makes them want to go back to Mexico.
  • Want your country to project sophistication as well as good old craftsmen and peasants? You need two brands. When French marketers want to project urban sophistication, they don’t use France. They use a separate subbrand called ‘Paris’.


When Anglo-Saxons develop brands, they invariably go for additional features at an additional cost.

But a brand doesn’t have to do more to be strong. It can also do less.

Go to the French hotel chain Formula 1 and you will find no restaurant, no pool, no fax machine and no minibar.

You make your booking on a computer at home. The code that you print out opens the front gate to the hotel and your hotel room door.

The rooms contain just a bed. The TV is screwed to the wall, and the remote is screwed to the bed.

But you can stay in Formula 1 for just 30 Euros a night.

And Formula 1 is very successful.

It follows a theory called Value Innovation from Professors Renée Maubourgne and Chan Kim of the Insead business school in Fontainebleau.

It allows you to differentiate your brand, whilst at the same time cutting costs.


Marketers in other countries could do more by doing less:

  • Take one thing out of the mix, and it often frees up another. Low cost airlines have discovered that if they don’t serve their passengers food, the passengers don’t need the toilet as often. So they’ve taken out some of the toilets, and have replaced them with extra seats.
  • The less-is-more strategy works in the US too. Back in the 1950s, Ray Kroc took the waiters, cutlery and tablecloths out of restaurants. The result was McDonalds.


Marketers in most countries express their marketing in unambiguous, clear, rational words.

They can thus fix the consumer’s rational needs.

The problem though is that the consumer is not rational.

The consumer spends her days dreaming:

  • No one buys a lottery ticket accepting that they have a greater chance of being killed by a car on their way to the shop than they have of winning the jackpot.
  • No entrepreneur sits in their office accepting the rational fact that eighty percent of businesses fail within their first two years.
  • Most younger consumers cannot even plan for the possibility that someday they may get old.

And when they consume, people put their money not where their head is, but where their heart is.

So marketers in most countries may sell a woman $2 of shampoo a month to fix her dandruff. But they will miss out on the other $100 she spends on her hair in a salon.

Meanwhile in France

French marketers are not so focussed on rational promises. They are more interested in the higher margins available by selling dreams.

They are thus focussed on much bigger consumer concerns than marketers in other countries.

Like ‘I don’t want to look old.’

And ‘I don’t want my partner to leave me.’

The result is marketing that touches the consumer at a much deeper level than Anglo-Saxon problem- solution marketing.


Marketers in other countries need to appeal to their consumers’ dreams rather than just their needs:

  • In the end, marketing has to ask itself what’s the real need? – reducing wrinkles or looking thirty when you’re forty? French marketing gets to the fundamentals of consumer need.
  • Marketers in many countries struggle to sell pensions because getting old is a dream - like the hundred things you should do before you die?


Travel through Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport with fake designer luggage in tow, and the first time you do it, you get a police warning.

The third time you do it, you go to jail.

French marketers protect their intellectual property well.

  • If it doesn’t come from Roquefort, you can’t call it Roquefort in most of the world.
  • If it doesn’t come from Champagne, you can’t call it Champagne.

Sure, in China, French goods are ripped off mercilessly.

But the French hold out, knowing that it is not in the nature of young Chinese women to choose fake accessories. And that as soon as they can afford to do so, they will buy the real thing.


Marketers in other countries need to learn to protect what’s theirs.

But in today’s digital world, working out what matters isn’t easy.

In 1982, IBM thought the software rights to their new Personal Computer were worthless.

So they left them to a small company called Microsoft.

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