All over the world, drivers will stop for gasoline and run into the station's convenience store for coffee, a lottery ticket and other essentials. And from Toronto to Timbuktu, the shop in question will be called On The Run.
This glowing vision of global homogeneity seems to have electrified management at Exxon Mobil, the world-scale enterprise behind Canada's Esso gas stations. But the corporate titans reckoned without Quebec's eternal sensitivity about language. When word got around that Esso would change signs on 54 gas-station depanneurs across Quebec from Marche Express to On The Run, the issue blew up very quickly.
Then the script ran precisely as usual: corporate defence of change, involvement of language activists, media buzz, rethink at head office, rapid backing down by corporation. Marche Express lives!
There are peculiarities to the Quebec market, to put it mildly, which non-local companies need to understand. While the name change of Esso's depanneurs was legal (because On The Run is a registered trademark) it was clearly unwise.
Despite the success of Quebec's language law in keeping French predominant, many francophones remain wary about language. Tinkering with the balance is something no company should do lightly.
But calling Esso a "cultural predator," as one francophone lobby group did, is ridiculous. "Ponderous dinosaur" would be closer.
Still, we have to agree with Jean Dorion, president of the Societe St. Jean Baptiste, when he says Esso's mistake could become a case study in business school. The title could be How Not To Do Business in Quebec.