The Montreal Canadiens recently announced a new multi-year jersey partnership with RBC at the team’s annual golf tournament. The addition of a patch on the team’s jersey comes after the NHL allowed teams to sell advertising on their jerseys beginning this upcoming season. The logo will only be featured on the Canadiens’ home jerseys at Bell Centre.
What could go wrong? Everything.
When major sponsors sign big cheques, it’s usually to increase their brand’s visibility and reinforce positive brand associations. Sophisticated marketers also ensure that they don’t just splash their logo on signage, they build in activation programs. RBC did just that by promising to donate $20 to the Montreal Canadiens Children’s Foundation for every game jersey sold with the RBC logo at the site of the team’s official store.
This must have looked like a perfect fit when viewed from the top floors of the Royal Bank Plaza in Toronto. However, one of the world’s largest banks appears to have unwittingly caused an uproar in Quebec, and now finds itself on thin ice.
The reaction to the announcement was swift, starting with Greenpeace Quebec, who saw an opportunity to attack the bank as “the worst bank in Canada, the one that contributes the most to climate change.”
It invited outraged fans to take action: “We’re calling on fans who are planning to buy a jersey and asking them to paint the RBC logo black. Because that’s what this company is doing, it’s literally sullying the Sainte-Flanelle.”
Opinion in the press this week referred to the RBC logo as a stain of oil on a sacred place. Quebec passed a law that bans religious symbols in the public service, but religious symbols remain powerful in the public’s imagination — and there’s nothing in Quebec with a more committed group of followers than the Sainte-Flanelle, a nickname for the Canadiens meaning “holy flannel .”
RBC also inadvertently stepped into the dangerous minefield of identity politics. Quebec is a nation where symbols, including brands, are often linked to nationalism. Many use a narrative about pride, “chez nous” and “ici” to signal their connections with Quebecers.
The move prompted upset fans to write letters to the media and call into radio shows. One published in La Presse inevitably made the controversy about language, dismayed that the bank’s name was displayed in English.
Others have pointed out that the RBC logo is the same lion that tops the fountain in Trafalgar Square — another sign of the anglicization of Quebec.
At the same time, many argue that the team’s new captain, Nick Suzuki, must learn to speak French to be effective. Even Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault piped in, calling Suzki an “excellent choice” who need now learn the language.
I wouldn’t expect RBC to change its logo for “Banque Royale” and tame the lion any time soon, or to move its logo to the shoulder as another writer proposed. The bank can choose to ride this, and hope the controversy dies down. That might be wishful thinking, however, since the very point of this sponsorship and the logo’s strategic placement is to get maximum visibility. Every home game will be a reminder of RBC’s barbarian invasion.
RBC could learn from another controversy: Walmart’s decision in 2005 to shut down its store in Jonquière, Que. after it voted to unionize. The backlash was immediate and brutal. It took a while for the retailer to recover but it did so by implementing a “Buy Quebec” program.
Years ago, RBC was a beloved bank in Quebec largely due to its successful advertising featuring actor Jean Lapointe. Times have changed, but with RBC’s massive resources, it can surely dream up a way to overcome this royal mess with real actions and the right communications to amplify them.