The 60-second television spot goes like this: an apparent African immigrant waits in anticipation at an airport, porting bags of new winter coats. From the baggage area emerge his wife and two children. After an emotional reunion, he hands his wife a cup of fresh coffee, which she dexterously holds so as to keep the logo visible. “Welcome to Canada,” he comments before gallantly escorting his family into what is presumably their first snowstorm.
Few advertisers could pull that off without courting derision. But Tim Hortons is no ordinary company. “They’ve taken decades to be able to get to where handing a Tim Hortons cup to someone as they get off a plane symbolizes welcoming them to Canada,” marvels Patricia Cormack, a sociology professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. “What else could you hand someone and get away with it without being ridiculous?” The humble Timbit has joined the toque, beaver and Arctic tundra on our sparse list of national symbols. Tim Hortons got there through simple, consistent marketing that emphasizes the same qualities — dependability, diversity, humility and honesty — Canadians often ascribe to themselves.
Consider its total lack of pretense. Starbucks appeals to turtleneck-clad sophisticates who’ll pay top dollar for exotic fair-trade blends from Kenya while being serenaded by Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. By contrast, Tim Hortons’ distinct coffee of undisclosed provenance originated in a common kitchen, where hockey legend Tim Horton and his wife, Lori, experimented with various blends. Opened in 1964, his first coffee and doughnut shop was a converted gas station in Hamilton, Ont. While less rustic, the chain’s modern stores typically feature plastic plants and earthy colours. Inside, construction workers brush shoulders with Armani-dressed consultants waiting in line for double-doubles, and nobody feels out of place.
According to Run Buist, a former marketing director who worked at the company between 1977 and 2001, Tim Hortons’ success owes more to its humble roots than anything else. “It started in smaller communities, where some of the biggest events in town were the changing of traffic lights and Tim Hortons being open all night long,” he explains. As small communities grew into larger ones and residents migrated to still larger cities, Tim Hortons followed.
The company namesake’s hero status in Canada’s iconic sport didn’t hurt, either. But hisconspicuous presence ended abruptly with his fatal 1974 car crash, after which his wife sold her stake. She prohibited the company from using Horton’s image — a seemingly insurmountable blow to the brand. Yet the company maintained its association with the sport by sponsoring children’s hockey programs. Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby attended the Timbits minor hockey program as a child; today, he endorses the company.
Tim’s marketing has been consistent. While visiting a cup supplier in the mid-1980s, Buist asked whether text could be printed under the rim. The answer was yes, and the Roll Up the Rim contest was born. “It came to be because we didn’t have the money to do anything else,” recalls Buist. Now in its 25th year, it exceeded expectations because it was dead simple. “It’s in your hand,” Buist says. “There’s an arrow pointing to the rim. Go ahead, throw it out — you might be throwing out a car. You’ll do it. You’ll roll up the rim.”
Tim Hortons built a long-term relationship with Enterprise Advertising of Toronto. Its “True Stories” advertisements, introduced during the late 1990s at a time when rapid expansion threatened to erode the brand, is a product of that stability. These ads depict Canadians struggling against adversity or unfamiliar surroundings, sustained by Tim Hortons products. Enterprise boasts that the campaign has delivered brand awareness and double-digit sales growth to Tim Hortons every year since its inception. That the “African reunion” ad was a fabrication performed by professional actors did not dampen the emotional response it provoked in many viewers.
Quebeckers are fiercely loyal to home-grown brands. Few benefited more from their devotion than Jean Coutu. The brainchild of the eponymous Montreal pharmacist and entrepreneur, this pharmacy and cosmetics chain is now celebrating its 40th year. Although present in Ontario and New Brunswick, Quebec is its stronghold; Revue Commerce magazine has consistently ranked the company among the province’s most admired over the past decade — frequently in the No. 1 spot. Coutu, still chairman, used to appear frequently in advertising, wearing his lab coat, and has long been among of the province’s most respected businessmen. His third son, Francois, is now president and CEO; both men were inducted into the Marketing Hall of Legend earlier this year. Coutu’s competitors can only dream of such adulation. And its Personnelle private label rivals international brands within the province. “If you’re a health and beauty-aid brand in Quebec, you can’t succeed unless Jean Coutu’s on your side,” says Eric Blais, president of Toronto-based Headspace Marketing. “They’re very, very powerful.”
Even a disastrous foray into the United States over the past decade has not dulled Coutu’s magic. Its significant stake in an ill-performing chain of 4,800 U.S. pharmacies, Rite-Aid, weighed heavily on its financial performance and diverted resources from expansion in Canada. “I don’t think it affected their brand in Quebec in any way,” says Blais. “Clearly, it’s the offering and the customer experience and the history of that brand in the market that creates its equity. It’s not exactly a phenomenon from an advertising or communications standpoint.”
Joseph-Armand Bombardier was a mechanical genius — and a marketing troglodyte. Determined to overcome the immobility imposed by the Canadian winter, he founded the company bearing his surname in 1942 and began inventing and producing tracked snowmobiles. But it took hectoring from his son-in-law and employee, Laurent Beaudoin, to convince him to spend more than pocket change on advertising — a move promptly rewarded with dramatically increased sales.
Beaudoin inherited control during the 1960s and built a Canadian legend. After a market glut of snowmobiles conspired with a warm 1973 winter to nearly wreck the company, Beaudoin resolved to diversify. Having divested its recreational products division in 2003, Bombardier now focuses on planes and trains.
Apart from its highly visible emblems on those products, the Montreal-based company rarely interacts directly with the public. Yet Bombardier is Canada’s most internationally recognized manufacturer and remains popular among the nation’s citizens — a feat all the more remarkable given decades of controversy surrounding the massive government subsidies that have buttressed its success. Bombardier’s standing was no doubt enhanced by aggressive promotion through its sponsorship of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games, which coincided with the Reputation Institute’s survey period earlier this year. Notably, a team of Bombardier workers designed and manufactured the stainless steel and aluminum Olympic torch, which played a starring role in recent ads.