The communicator

From crisis control to landing coverage in every major Quebec news outlet twice in five months, St-Hubert's director of marketing Jean-Claude Hardy is a master communicator.

From crisis control to landing coverage in every major Quebec news outlet twice in five months, St-Hubert’s director of marketing Jean-Claude Hardy is a master communicator.

He knows how to create PR opps and squeeze the most out of them, and how to spin media coverage his way when things go wrong, like they did in 2003 when one of the chain’s TV spots unexpectedly sparked outrage in the province’s Catholic community.

Most recently, his swift move to establish his restaurants as smoke-free havens scored kudos from Quebec’s health minister, who declared the Laval chain a ‘pioneer’ in the province’s efforts towards non-smoking environments.

Hardy, 43, orchestrated the highly successful PR campaign essentially by being quick on his feet. He caught wind that Quebec’s health minister planned to announce that all restaurants and bars would have to be smoke-free by 2006. The minister’s press conference was scheduled for a Tuesday, and Hardy found out about it less than a week before. He and the chain’s higher-ups immediately decided to establish St-Hubert as a leader in the shift, and Hardy determined the best way to go would be to run a full-page ad in all major daily newspapers across Quebec, congratulating the health minister on the decision and announcing the

chain’s intent to become smoke-free by May 2 of this year. They pulled it off in less than a week, and the day after the minister’s announcement, St-Hubert’s full-page was in papers everywhere.

Hardy’s quick thinking scored an incredible amount of positive publicity – he estimates St-Hubert representatives did about 60 or 70 media interviews in the week following the announcement, and the same number again the first week of May when the chain shifted to completely smoke-free. ‘We were ready to take a risk – nobody has a crystal ball to predict how customers will react,’ Hardy says.

Despite a sales drop in the Restau Bars since becoming smoke free, VP & GM Patrice Bélair isn’t worried; rather, he’s pleased with Hardy’s PR blitz, and he’s confident in his damage control skills. ‘Our goal was to position ourselves as ahead of the market,’ says Bélair, adding that, while the chain wasn’t expecting an immediate sales drop, they’re expecting to reap most of the benefits of the smoke-free initiative further down the road. ‘Jean-Claude was very good at reacting quickly [to the sales drop], and started changing the marketing strategy immediately.’

But it’s not just PR for PR’s sake: the smoke-free initiative is part of a larger strategy to position St-Hubert as a more health-conscious alternative to fast food. In 2002, the QSR made a move to ensure its chickens weren’t fed any animal by-products. This was also a bit of a gamble, since the higher-quality chicken cost eight cents more per kilo. But Hardy says it has paid off in terms of public perception at a time when Canadians became more health conscious and concerned about where their food comes from.

Bélair credits Hardy with organizing an effective campaign explaining to customers why St-Hubert’s chicken prices went up slightly. In the past few years, St-Hubert’s same store sales have been on a steady incline, and in 2004 the chain secured a quarter share of both the takeout and delivery markets in Quebec.

Hardy is as effective at responding to consumer reaction as he is at anticipating it. The chain was caught off guard in 2003 when Catholics reacted badly to a cheeky St-Hubert TV spot, by Bos Montreal, which featured a church choir singing the praises of one of the chain’s specials. Hardy was inundated with hundreds of angry phone calls, but ever the optimist, he saw it as a learning experience and an opportunity to interact with customers. ‘All those comments are very important to us,’ he says.

He also saw the unexpected attention as a prime PR opp, and acted as the chain’s spokesperson, making TV and radio appearances to do damage control. He explained that St-Hubert hadn’t intended to offend anyone, and that the ad would still run as planned – a refreshing reaction when marketers often cave to public pressure.

Of course, his career experience in the promotions departments at several radio stations no doubt helped shape his media savvy. Bélair credits Hardy’s communication skills with quickly pulling the chain out of the fire. Bélair says: ‘He’s very comfortable in front of the camera – he thinks before he speaks, but he appears very natural.’

Hardy also knows the majority of his customers well. He tracks info gleaned from St-Hubert’s substantial research department, listens to customers and employees, and relies on a bit of gut instinct.

His skill for giving people what they want has been apparent in the past, too. Before joining St-Hubert, Hardy was the Quebec marketing manager for Prime Restaurants, which owns East Side Mario’s and Casey’s Bar & Grill. He had to constantly brainstorm ways to get the most out of a small budget.

Hardy played up East Side Mario’s New York roots. He put up a faux road sign close to one of the restaurant’s Montreal locations that said ‘New York: next exit,’ with a discreetly placed East Side Mario’s logo. Within two weeks, sales went up by 17% at that restaurant. ‘You had to be creative in the Quebec market – we had a $1 million budget for two chains,’ he recalls. ‘But, we succeeded.’

But Hardy’s proudest career moment thus far is his smoke-free initiative. While he’s tight lipped on upcoming plans, he concedes his focus will continue to be reinforcing St-Hubert’s position as a health-conscious, speedy dining option. His media savvy certainly makes him one to keep an eye on for the next big PR blitz.

Five Questions

Favourite movie:

I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite, but I’ve been really affected by Ararat, about the Armenian genocide. It wasn’t quite the quiet Saturday night I was planning on.

First job:

Working in food service at a hospital when I was 18.

Marketer you admire most:

Jacques Bouchard, founder of [Montreal-based ad agency] BCP.

He’s done many great things for Quebec advertising, and helped many English companies do effective

French campaigns.

#1 thing you look for in an agency:

Affinity, perfect understanding of our industry. It’s quite a dynamic to work with franchisees.

Favourite way to unwind?

Gardening, tennis, playing with my kids.