Post-Christmas dichotomy

A good thing about spending Christmas in the UK is that you benefit from an additional day off to recover from the stuffed turkey that tries to test the resistance of your belt. You don't have to pretend to have flue to cope with your dramatic hang-over. No. You are officially entitled to stay at home... And you'd better.

Boxing day or recovering day?

But we, daring French fellows, decided to face conventions... We left our flat to walk around London, and size the opportunity to discover the town which has been hosting us for a semester now. And what an experience this was. Now that the public transportation was back on, we headed up for Central London and more precisely for the City. The place were a handful of lucky cocaine-addicted brokers would share this year a nice and decent multi-billion bonus.

People say "money has no odour", we wanted to smell it by ourselves.

However we were not ready to face the post-apocalyptic experience we were about to live. Empty streets. Closed shops. Dark franchises. Switched-off signs. Not even cars were pacing through the streets. The only living soul we encountered was a fallen-asleep surveillance guy, apparently still struggling with the Christmas pudding slice he should not have had the night before.

This London district which is probably the most hectic on a regular Tuesday, was completely dead. Where were the traders? The brokers? The PA? The journalists? We could not fathom that such a buoyant city could suddenly be emptied overnight. And we were proven right.

Boxing day or surfing day?

Disappointed by boring City, we decided to go West. If the business district had nothing to offer, maybe the shopping streets would. Oxford Street here we come. And what a contrast!

The bus made a left at a corner, and the empty street we were in turned into a human wave. Millions of passers-by, shoulder on shoulder, trying to make their way on the two pavements. From the upper-deck of our bus, we had the feeling to surf on a sea of hats, scarves, steam and hair. It was as if the entire London population had decided to concentrate on a few square-kilometers...

We finally had our vivid image of Boxing Day. Every year French TV reports people rushing at dawn to grab price-cut goods from the British Department Stores shelves. And here they were. Interesting, but also quite repealing in a sense. In spite of the call for good deals, we were taken aback by the perspective to join this human flow. Everyone was queueing for some reason: to get in, to get out, to be able to queue...

Even at the bakery! It seems that on this specific day, not only the finance guys can make good dow...


Quote of the day

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. "
Mark Twain (1835 - 1910)

Apologies if sometimes my English vocabulary is not rich enough to shed sufficient light on all these enlightening experiences... I try my best.

Best of two worlds

Recently my posts have been focusing quite a lot on food and advertising. This is probably because of the festive season: there is a lot of pressure on both my belt and my wallet. Anyway, here is a TV ad that unites my two current obsessions... And since there is a subtle hint of cultural differences too, I could not let it go.

Funny, this ad reminded me a strategic planner I used to work with, who was always challenging his ideas with an English quote: "Where's the beef". Well this time, I bet he would ask where the car is...


Number 118... BINGO!

Think Glocal.

One of the most common questions I am asked when I lecture at the University is: "What are the key factors of success of an international advertising campaign?". My answer is straight-forward: a creative idea is excellent when it can be consistently deployed globally while remaining sufficiently flexible to be adapted locally.

This could sound like a non-answer, but here is a great example of what I mean.

The Number is a brand which has been able to deliver the unique brand positioning (the non-sense) in very different markets, with consistent communication patterns but with a brilliant flair for local humour. A tricky performance.

Pick your own number.

In the UK, fatherland of advertising and trash press, the brand icons spoofed gossip newspapers with a micro-website and famous TV ads such as this Honda commercial:

In France, a brilliant teaser campaign announced the arrival of a new phenomenon in Paris following an intriguing tour across the country most "exciting" villages. Two guys, dressed up in flashy tights, were dancing on the market places on the rhythms of a fitness TV program soundtrack from the 80s (at that time hosted by two iconic girls: Véronique & Davina). Big fun about once famous celebrities who are trying by all means to come back in the spotlight thanks to reality-shows.

In winter, the two brand icons came up with a new kind of winter sport, the skirf, making fun this time of the French habit for adopting so-called "fun" sport activities:

Finally, in Switzerland, where the brand has been launched recently, The Number decided to make fun of national pride, competition skiing:

The outcome of such an approach is the feeling that the brand is local. The communication resonates with the customer personal references, and benefits are immediate. the brand recognition and top of mind are rocketing which is key in the case of a product launch; online films are viraled to a great extent hence gearing up communication budgets; people spoof the ads (just have a quick pick at YouTube when you enter "118218", the official productions are quickly outnumbered by the private videos)...
In other words, the brand is adopted by the local culture, and its origins are blurred.


Subtle differences among English speaking nations

While surfing the Internet, I found this very insightful description of the various nationalities to be found on the British soil... So true that I cannot resist to sharing it! Enjoy:

Aussies: Dislike being mistaken for Pommies (Brits) when abroad.
Canadians: Are rather indignant about being mistaken for Americans when abroad.
Americans: Encourage being mistaken for Canadians when abroad.
Brits: Can't possibly be mistaken for anyone else when abroad.

Aussies: Believe you should look out for your mates.
Brits: Believe that you should look out for those people who belong to your club.
Americans: Believe that people should look out for & take care of themselves.
Canadians: Believe that that's the government's job.

Aussies: Are extremely patriotic to their beer.
Americans: Are flag-waving, anthem-singing, and obsessively patriotic to the point of blindness.
Canadians: Can't agree on the words to their anthem, when they can be bothered to sing them.
Brits: Do not sing at all but prefer a large brass band to perform the anthem

More to be read here.

Live to eat, or eat to live.

A true Foodball fan.

If you are a frequent reader of this blog you might think that I have a one-track mind. We have an idiom for people whose main interest is food. We call them "un estomac sur pattes" (A stomach on feet). Their anatomy is in a sense reduced to its quintessence...

So you might call me so, but I have been willing to write this post for quite a while now. In fact, since I started working in this country. The reason of such a determination? A simple line in my contract stating that I would benefit from a 30 minute lunch break every day... But honestly, is eating a sandwich in front of your computer "a break", and even more "a lunch"?

French are said to overspend hours enjoying their meal with a bottle of red wine. And this caricature has probably some legitimacy. However, I am not one of those. On the contrary, I would probably compete for a place in the fast-track eater national team, should it exist. But still, the time I allocate to this subsistence need is valued. It might be short, but it is intense.

On the other hand, when my colleagues swallow beans on toast, jacket potato with beans or even beans à la beans... I am circumspect. They seem to be driven by a constant rush with no regard to the quality of what is ingested. Lunch is obviously considered from a physiological perspective, and a sandwich or a tin of bean as a convenience... There is no time to waste at appreciating the nutriments that are thrown in your throat, that is simply not the point.

Very Fast food.

But this goes beyond time saving. It reaches deeper considerations than simply "business first"... It is a major cultural difference. While Brits approach food as a mean to fulfill natural needs, we entitle it with more spiritual a value.

Let's take a real-life example: I invited some friends at home and cooked them a dinner. Same menu, different audiences. The reaction of the guests strongly differed depending on the cultural background. Most of locals would indeed welcome the food with fork and knife in hands, ready to tuck in. Eventually, if delighted, they will compliment the chef for the tasty meal. Eat first, appreciate then.

My compatriots tend to welcome the first dishes with its lot of congratulations and of impressed nods, especially if some efforts have been done to set the plate nicely... It is part of an unsaid protocol. More precisely a ritual with its codes. It aims at recognising the efforts of the host, even before having even gulp the first bite. There is probably a great dose of conventions (and hypocrisy) behind this, but still. Good or bad, there is a profound respect for the food, its preparation, its dressing and the moment implied by its tasting. The table is some kind of an altar to the god of food.

This later image is fully pondered. There is actually a quasi-religious relationship towards food. This T-Shirt is quite relevant in that sense (and can be bought here). Tartiflette is indeed a traditional dish from the French Alps... and is absolutely divine! Rich, but divine.

But back to the symbol. If Canadian sew their flag on their backpack, we prefer to refer to our food as an evidence of our origins. Food unite us all. I encourage the British readers of this post who have the "chance" to welcome several French elements in their company to study their behaviour at lunch time. You should see them like pilgrims heading in groups to their holy restaurant. They will call Christelle from finance, wait for Jean from logistics, investigate about Julien... But in no case one will be left behind.

And if one of them turns up at the next door sandwich store, on his own, you can be sure that he is an heretic. He must have been tempted by the dark side of this country, and tried
Marmite. They call it integration... And frankly, sometimes it's frightening!


The bank of difference

Advertising the difference.

I have already written, and hopefully demonstrated, that cultural disparities are creative superhighways that advertising agencies exploit to engage their audience. They basically emphasize the difference to create a difference.

The purpose of advertising is indeed to think beyond conventions, "out of the box". By tapping into other civilisation "boxes", they create the expected rupture. And trigger the expected effect: usually empathy, a smile, or even a good laughter.

This is a typical human reflex against alien elements. When the unknown disrupts your classical scheme of beliefs, your habits, etc. you tend to create a distance to protect the constitutive bricks of your self. A laughter (or a Parisian shrug) are simply physical expressions of a tension that one tends to dedramatize...

Cultural anxiety at the counter

HSBC has decided to capitalise on this phenomenon and to turn it into a brand positioning: the global bank which remains local.

Beyond the demonstration of my first point, these films literally reinforce my point on the fear of the unknown. They indeed sell the Bank understanding of local business/cultures in a very negative approach. Both executions deliver anxiogene visions of the other culture, and depict a lost customer gasping for air (and help). "If you don't know, we do. Trust us".

Personally I perceive this communication as eventually funny, but definitely peremptory. However, to be totally honest, it matches the attitude of the bank towards its prospects and customers. Ever entered an HSBC branch, let say on the Champs Elysees? That is a cultural experience, because we do not seem to live in the same world.


Liberté, égalité... FRATERNITY

Hug the world.

Usually, this blog tends to pinpoint at differences, to emphasise cultural disparities… but sometimes it is simply refreshing to salute also fraternal initiatives. “Some hints of tenderness in a world of brutality” as some advertiser wrote one day. I am even considering contributing personally to this Hugging movement. I just cannot wait for that upcoming photo-shooting with these famous top-models.

But beyond the pale joke, it is in fact quite an inspiring film. In an age of social disconnectivity, the effects depicted in this video are very representative of our society. People artificially create a distance to protect themselves against the toughness of their surrounding. In other words, they demonstrate a neutral or even negative behaviour as a response to a morally/socially aggressive environment. Nevertheless, they intrinsically remain good and are just hoping for opportunities to demonstrate their inner feelings.

Sympathetic birds

I had the chance to meet Dr. Xavier Emmanuelli, founder of Médecins Sans Frontières and SAMUsocial. During our conversation he depicted a similar phenomenon. Trolling down the streets of Paris he came across an inanimate homeless man who was completely ignored by passers-by. As if invisible on his pavement. The doctor had to stop to check the fellow up. And amazing enough, his reflex worked as a catalyst. People started to stop and offer their help, even suggesting to call... a doctor! A bubble of humanity was inflating around the body, until he woke up from his alcoholic sleep, grumbling. A sudden burst of aggressivity, and a survival reflex seized the crowd who immediately returned to its self-centred walk. Afraid like birds would be of a barking dog.

In a sense this is an evidence that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was right when he asserted that human beings were naturally good, but were corrupted by the society. Suddenly this hugging film is no longer an amusing, cute little video. It becomes a philosophical, humanist action we should pay tribute to. So Bravo.

And for once, I won't finish this post on a light tone, but with a reminder in the form of a TV commercial on which I worked. If a hug is sometimes too much, or too hard, remember that a smile is already a mark of consideration. An acknowledgment that the person facing you exists. And this means a lot for someone who doesn't have anything but his dignity left.

Strapline: Nobody is tough enough to live in the street.


Advent Calend'runk

If this is not a cultural difference, I don't know what is... Oh, and merry Christmas!


France 24, a different view on the news.

In the UK, this Sunday, thousands of people will buy their newspaper and read through the articles while sipping their tea. A cliche? Probably, but what is the cliche of France news consumption? A low-quality red wine glass, in a crowed and smoky cafe, discussing the Saturday night performance of the local football team...

Well, things are changing. These two TV commercials from creative hotshop Marcel announce the long expected French News channel,
France 24. A CNN with a French flair.

It will be interesting to see how the news will be treated, and how the cultural disparities will influence it. But on the other hand, will people care about what French-speaking people think of? Do we still have a word to say in a world dominated by a language (
English), a raising people (China), a controversial light-attracting civilisation (Muslims), etc.?

I am convinced that this channel has a role to play, as a counter-power to the above-mentioned television arms: CNN, Al Jazeera... And in the worst case, should no audience pay attention to what France24 has to say, they will always be able to reposition themselves as a channel airing Wine and Football reviews. They will have 60 million fans, or so. Cheers.