Consumer Research on French Canadians: Historical Perspectives and Methodological Issues

ABSTRACT - This paper examines major approaches and findings regarding the French Canadian market, its position in North America and the history that shaped it. Two main research streams are identified and examined. The Comparative Approach tries to define Francophones against other major groups such as Anglophones. The Structural Approach attempts to construct unique profiles of French Canadians. Finally, major methodological issues are identified.


Michel Laroche (1985) ,"Consumer Research on French Canadians: Historical Perspectives and Methodological Issues", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 37-41.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 37-41


Michel Laroche, Concordia University


This paper examines major approaches and findings regarding the French Canadian market, its position in North America and the history that shaped it. Two main research streams are identified and examined. The Comparative Approach tries to define Francophones against other major groups such as Anglophones. The Structural Approach attempts to construct unique profiles of French Canadians. Finally, major methodological issues are identified.


In order to properly grasp the major points raised by this paper, it is necessary to understand basic facts about the Canadian society as well as the historical perspectives shaping the behaviour of French Canadians.

The Canadian Mosaic

Contrary to the United States, which is based on the idea of a "melting pot," Canada is a "mosaic" of ethnic groups (Porter 1965). Some of these groups are North American Indians, Inuit, and Canadians of French, English, German, Italian, Scandinavian, Dutch and Chinese origin. From Table 1, which uses the 1981 census results, it can be esLiMaLed that 45% of Canadians are of British origin, 28% of French origin, 5% German, 3% Italian, 2% Ukrainian, and 2% from the native peoples of Canada. The rest (15%) are spread among many other ethnic groups (Statistics Canada 1983).



Nearly three-quarters of Canadians in the Atlantic provinces are of British origin. More than 80% of Quebeckers are of French origin. The highest concentration of Canadians of German or Ukrainian origin, as well as native people, are in the prairie provinces. Canadians of Italian origin have the highest concentration in Ontario.

In addition to ethnic identification marketers must look at the mother tongue of Canadians. For all provinces except Quebec, English is the dominant mother tongue. In Newfoundland, 98.7% have English as their mother tongue as against 11% in Quebec. French is the mother tongue of 82.4% of Quebeckers. Manitoba is the highest province for German (7.3%) and Ukrainian (5.7%). Ontario has 3.9% of its people with Italian as a mother tongue and British Columbia has 2.8% with Chinese (Statistics Canada 1983).

Anglophones and Francophones

Canada is a multi-cultural society in which the two most numerically important cultures, the English and the French, might be identified by linguistic, geographical and economic dimensions. Lefrancois and Chatel(1967) define the French Canadian market as including, in addition to the Province of Quebec, eight adjacent counties in Ontario and seven counties in New Brunswick. Other authors define the two groups according to linguistic criteria and will be reviewed later in this paper (Bergier et al 1982).

Historical Perspectives

The past three decades have seen dramatic changes in consumer behaviour in Quebec. Before the death of Premier Duplessis in 1959, the situation may be described as "the two solitudes" whereby the two cultural groups were living in separate psychological fields with minimal contacts. Consequently, the French Canadians maintained a strong cultural identity based on religion, tradition and strong family ties. On the other hand, they felt threatened by the preponderance of the English language in most marketing communications tools. By 1913, the Ligue des Droits du Francais was created with the objective of encouraging businesses to use correct French in their communications (MacGregor 1982).

In 1960 the government of Jean Lesage came to power, and a new period called "the Quiet Revolution" emerged. This movement was outward looking. Optimism and reform were the order of the day, particularly educational and industrial developments. With it came the realization that more effective communication tools could be used for the French Canadian market. Studies showed that most ads were direct translations from English and that there were some blatant imbalances with respect to the types of product advertised, space allotment, style of language and French consumer image (Elkin and Hill 1968; Galantone and Picard 1982).

After the election of the Parti Quebecois in 1976, the Charter of the French Language was established in 1977 in order to fully restore the use of French in all aspects of socio-economic life in Quebec. With this came an increase in French Canadian's level of self-confidence coupled with increased affluence and power in socio-economic life which is continuing today. On the other hand, English Canadians went through a difficult period of adjustment. Some left the Province of Quebec, but those who remained eventually adjusted to the new situation. These changes are reflected in marketing practices where full attention is now given to the Quebec market (Calantone and Picard 1982). The most enlightened companies develop separate marketing strategies for the French Canadian market and make use of the French agencies which have grown to rival the English ones in terms of size and quality (Darmon and Laroche 1984).

The Two Main Research Streams

Most of the research dealing with the consumer behaviour of French Canadians can be classified either as a comparative approach or as a structural approach. In the comparative approach, the researchers administer the same questionnaire to both French and English Canadians in the appropriate language. Comparisons are then madt! between responses of the two groups. In the structural approach, the researchers primarily attempt to develop a profile of the French Canadian market which can then be used to explain its behaviour.


The majority of published studies tend to fall in this category, whereby the approach is purely descriptive in comparing the consumption behaviour of the two groups and in trying to interpret the results based on cultural dimensions.

The Socio-Economic Hypothesis

One of the proponents of this hypothesis, Lefrancois and Chatel (1966) attribute behavioural differences between the two groups to socioeconomic differences: different income and educational levels, rates of urbanization and employment profiles. Following their reasoning, eliminating these differences would lead to a similarity in the purchasing behaviour of English and French, but this hypothesis was not borne out by two studies that compared consumption behaviour between families of the same size and the same income in Quebec and in Ontario (Palda 1967; Thomas 1975). A more recent study reached the same conclusion after controlling for social class and income (Schaninger et al 1985).

Descriptive Approaches

A large number of studies looked into the consumption differences between Anglophones and Francophones (Brisebois 1966; Schaninger et al 1985; Clifford 1979; Chebat and Henault 1974; Mallen 1968, 1975, 1977; Bergier et al 1980a, 1980b; Ahmed et al 1981; Ash et al 1980; Chiasson 1981; Tigert 1973; Wyckham 1978).

It would be too tedious to review all of these studies. Instead we shall strive to give a sampling of some of their findings.

From Statistics Canada, the general distribution of expenditures for Francophone and Anglophone families is shown in Table 2. Francophones set aside a larger share of their budgets for food, clothing and personal and health care, while Anglophones spend proportionately more for transportation, leisure and reading.



Published research studies indicate that there are significant variations in consumer behaviour; for example, 95% of the beer consumed in Quebec is of the ale type compared to 55% in Ontario. By the same token, Quebeckers consume 95% of the Geneva gin sold in Canada (Brisebois 1966).

Homemade soups are served in 80% of Francophone families but in only 40% of Anglophone families (Mallen 1968,1977), and Francophone housewives prefer to buy packaged soups and cake mixes rather than canned soups and ready-made cakes (Brisebois 1966). Francophones are also more introspective, more humanistic, more emotional , less materialistic and less pragmatic than Anglophones (Mallen 1968). These characteristics have allowed researchers to identify specific consumption habits. For example, consumers in Quebec have the largest per-capita consumption of soft drinks, wines, maple syrup and sweets, and they listen to the radio and watch television the most. Clothing expenditures are higher for Francophones, and women in Quebec are more demanding about the quality of their clothes (Dhalla 1966).

Research has also shown that Francophones did not believe there was truly an energy crisis. They are less concerned about ecology than Anglophones (Ahmed et al 1981), and they are less satisfied with the quality of repairs or professional services (Ash et al 1980).

What accounts for Francophones' consumption of more remedies against headaches and stomach aches, and more decaffeinated coffee than their Anglophone counterparts? Why does perfume sell better in Quebec than in the rest of Canada (Brisebois 1966)? These are the kinds of questions that descriptive approaches cannot answer.


From numerous private and published studies on Francophone consumption behaviour, three main typologies of cultural traits can be proposed:

Henault (1971)

One of the first attempts at developing a cultural profile of the French Canadians, he identifies eight cultural characteristics in which the two groups differ markedly.

Table 3 indicates some of the cultural differences between Francophones and Anglophones. Francophones represent a separate group because they have many distinct cultural characteristics, among them language, religion, and strong family ties.



Mallen (1977)

According to Mallen (1977), three major traits underlie Francophones' consumption behaviour: the sensate, the conservative and the non-price cognitive. The sensate trait appeals to the senses and includes touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing as well as social hedonism. Conservative traits relate to low risk-taking behaviour and strong family orientation and explain a high degree of brand loyalty. The non-price cognitive trait is an outcome of the two previous traits, i.e., if a product is liked by Francophones, price (within bounds) will not be an obstacle to a purchase. This trait explains the failure of generic or noname brands among Francophones in 1978, while they were a success among Anglophones (Darmon et al 1983).

Bouchard (1980)

According to Bouchard (1980), Francophones have six common historical and cultural roots: rural, minority, North American, Catholic, Latin and French (see Figure 1). Each root produces six responsive chords for a total of thirty-six chords, which help explain much consumption behaviour of Francophones.

- the rural root relates to recent history and strong traditions which have not been affected by industrialization and urbanization.

- the minority root relates to their position in North America, a small group in a sea of English speaking people.

- the North American root reflects the influence of the American culture as internalized over the years.

- the Catholic root is still quite strong despite a sharp decline in church attendance.

- the Latin root explains why creative approaches emphasizing emotions and mood are quite effective and that they have an high esthetic sense.

- the French root relates not only to the language but also to their heritage as transmitted by history and literature.

The list of responsive chords in Figure 1 is useful for managers responsible for developing a marketing or advertising strategy for the Francophone market. For example, French Canadian consumers tend to select products that bring instant gratification, satisfy an aesthetic sense and reduce their sense of inferiority. If a product is liked (in pretests), price sensitivity tends to be low, so pricing strategy may rely on a higher quality/higher price relationship.


Most published studies suffer from at least one of three weaknesses:

Inconsistency of Operational Definitions

One of the major problems in research on French Canadians is a lack of consistent operational definitions of this cultural group. Bergier and Rosenblatt(1982) have shown that most published studies use one of five definitions;

1. Dominant language which includes language spoken at home or most often spoken (Ash et al 1980; Lefrancois and Chatel 1966; McCarrey et al 1972; Tigert 1973; Tamilia 1977, 1978; Taylor et al 1973; Chebat and H6nault 1974).

2. Mother tongue (Ash et al 1980; Lefranicois and Chatel 1966);

3. Language of returned questionnaire (Ash et al 1980; Crosby 1968; Schaninger et al 1985);

4. Ethno-cultural characteristics, which include religion, ethnic origin and family orientation (Palda 1967, Mallen 1968, 1973; Tamilia 1978; Chebat and Henault 1974; Taylor et al 1973);

5. Place of residence such as Quebec versus Ontario (Crosby 1968; Palda 1967; Lefrancois and Chatel 1966).

In their own study, Bergier and Rosenblatt (1982) used several of these definitions and showed high levels of misclassification across operational definitions.

Tamilia (1979) rejects the use of mother tongue as a classification measure of whether a consumer is a Francophone or an Anglophone. Instead, he suggests that cultural group affiliation be determined by questions that relate to media viewing habits and self-identification as well as more traditional measures Jamilia 1977, 1978, 1979).



Heterogeneity of French and English Canadians

This problem is especially acute when comparisons are made between two samples taken from the two populations. English as well as French Canadians are not homogeneous groups.

There are very strong regional differences in Canada (Darmon et al 1985). This is consistent with Garreau's (1981) concept of "nations" in North America and tested in Canada by Vredenburg and Thirkell (1983). A study conducted with two thousand consumers in Toronto and Montreal found differences not only between Francophones and Anglophones but also between Toronto and Montreal Anglophones. These differences were attributed to variations in regional distribution and promotion (Bergier et al 1980).

Similarly, Lefebvre (1974) suggested that Francophones belong to one of four segments, depending on how they view themselves with respect to the French and English cultures: the assimilationist; the cultural pluralist; the alienated; and the separatist:

1. The assimilationist wants FC to be merged into FC thereby losing his original identity.

2. The cultural pluralist desires tolerance from and equality with the rest of Canada so that much of FC distinctiveness may be retained.

3. The separatist desires separation from the rest of Canada so that his French identity be preserved.

4. The alienated rejects both EC And FC identities, a particularly taxing condition psychologically (p. 684).

Lack of Control

With the exception of a few studies (Palda 1967, Thomas 1975, Schaninger et al 1985), most available studies do not attempt to control for other variables such as income, social class, family size or geography. Since consumer behaviour might be heavily influenced by these variables (Darmon et al 1985), the differences between the two cultural groups under study might be confounded with culture.


The review of the last thirty years of research on French Canadian consumer behaviour shows that a great deal of effort has been expended in looking at differences between French and English Canadians, but that researchers need to be more systematic and thorough in order to properly identify the influence of culture on consumer decision processes. Future research should build upon the structural approaches outlined in this paper to identity homogeneous populations and design experiments which allow the research to isolate and study the effects of culture on perception, information search, attitude formation, confidence, intention and purchase. The French Canadian market is an important one for marketers to understand, and the jury is still out (Boisvert 1983). Fragmentary and often unreliable evidence point to subtle differences, but more extensive research needs to be conducted to show they are real and how to design marketing and communication strategies based on these differences.


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Michel Laroche, Concordia University


SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives | 1985

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