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Reclaiming Cultural Heritage
through the Commercial World
VIRGINIE DERCOURT, PH.D., Professor/Lecturer/Writer on
Multicultural Branding Issues
Virginie Dercourt started her professional career at Cato Gobé working as
a marketing strategist for such brands as Pepsi, Gillette, Marlboro, and The
Limited. She then worked for seven years as a marketing manager for L’Oréal
in Paris.
anagerial and academic researchers now accept that products, brands, and
points of sale in the commercial world can play a significant role in the con-
struction of an individual’s sense of self. Borrowing from psychology, psychiatry,
anthropology, and history, researchers show that “materiality” plays a key role
in the achievement of satisfactory lives. Marketing managers understand that they must cre-
ate ideas consumers can see, endorse, and use to build this sense of self, but the way to do
it is far from obvious. In their development of brands, products, and points of sale, market-
ing managers must consider all types of consumer needs and desires, which is challenging
because consumers cannot always articulate how they would like things to be.
I was fortunate to experience different cultural environments—and was exposed to a lot
of misconceptions about the French, the British, the Americans, the Swiss, and the Dutch.
Although these misconceptions were not unusual, our essential task for clients was to dis-
cover the key cross-cultural values that these consumers did have in common—and to de-
velop communications that touched these deeply felt emotional need states. At L’Oréal, my
daily challenge was to manage both the emotional and the business dimensions of brands.
Despite the sheer size of the group, L’Oréal as a company has managed to maintain a very
strong creative culture. Regular fieldwork is compulsory, and training in different creative
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Reclaiming Cultural Heritage
through the Commercial World
areas is held yearly. During my seven years with the group, I was exposed to very different
business challenges: new product launches, distribution network issues, and international
brand development.
Among my different field experiences, the ones conducted in the sometimes-troubled Paris
suburban areas, among French ethnic consumers, best illustrate this ongoing challenge. As
a professor teaching marketing in that area, I was surprised by the way the female ethnic
students (born and raised here) use cosmetics and fashion brands. They mix and match
elements of their original culture (such as the veil, the use of henna) with elements from
the national culture in a very creative and personal manner. Instead of completely endorsing
the French commercial culture, they seemed particularly keen to include elements of their
traditional culture.
Ethnic products and brands are a booming market in a number of European countries. In
France, Halal food represents a US $4.3 billion market (US $21.8 billion in Europe) and
has been growing at 15 percent per year since 1990. In the cosmetic category, the Afro-
French female consumer spends, on average, seven times more on hair care products than
the French Caucasian. In Italy, the ethnic market represents a US$45 billion market. Not
surprisingly, world-class brands such as Nestlé and L’Oréal are developing specific products
to target this market. My research indicates that a large number of fast-moving consumer
goods (FMCG) categories are recognizing the need to take cultural roots more seriously.
The challenge for marketing managers is to understand the psychological need states
associated with these complex identity issues and then to develop appropriate brand com-
munications to help consumers manage these issues. I conducted extensive one-on-one
interviews with eighteen- to twenty-seven-year-old ethnic female consumers—and their
mothers—in the suburban areas of Paris. All were born in France (or had arrived before
age five). For the majority, both parents were born and brought up outside of France—in
Algeria, Morocco, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tahiti, Turkey, the French
Caribbean Islands (Martinique, Guadeloupe)—and two of the interviewees had one parent
coming from outside of France, Senegal and Sierra Leone.
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