Canada is the new black: The CTC’s Greg Klassen

From vast and barren to hip and adventurous, Greg Klassen has helped transform the image of our home and native land

Coming in second place isn’t always desirable (in a fight to the death, for instance). But Greg Klassen, SVP, marketing strategy and communications for the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC), couldn’t be happier about Canada’s runner-up status, especially considering how far it’s come.

At the World Travel Market in London, U.K. in November, global branding firm FutureBrand announced the rankings of its Country Brand Index. Canada took the number two spot behind Australia, jumping 10 spots in just two years (it ranked number 12 in 2006 and number six in 2007). And for the first time, Canada has made Lonely Planet’s list of top 10 countries for 2009, alongside exotic locales such as Algeria, Peru and Greenland – the kinds of places Canada had been losing customers to. ‘We are [also] unique, exotic and off the beaten track,’ Klassen says, ‘and we offer the kinds of experiences people want to have, we just needed to add context to them.’ And context they gave, in the form of a complete brand overhaul and an exploration into new, cutting-edge marketing initiatives.

The CTC, a crown corporation, is responsible for marketing Canada at home and overseas in the markets with the highest potential for ROI – namely the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Mexico, Japan, China, South Korea and Australia. It has a marketing team of 35 with local teams in the nine countries covered. The CTC also develops programs that provincial and city tourism partners in Canada buy into or develop in conjunction with its strategy. Tourism represents 2% of Canada’s overall GDP, which is no small potatoes when you consider that contribution is greater than agriculture, fishing, forestry and hunting combined. But despite its importance, the industry has travelled a rocky road in the past decade.

Klassen joined the CTC the week after 9/11 (in fact, he couldn’t fly to Ottawa for his interview because planes were grounded). Two years later, the SARS epidemic hit. These events forced the CTC to re-examine their strategy and take a long hard look at their brand image. They came to realize it was eroding in the minds of consumers. ‘The kinds of travellers that we had traditionally attracted to Canada were looking for and finding experiences in all corners of the globe,’ Klassen says.

The problem, according to Klassen, was that Canada was resting on its laurels. Advertising it did five or six years ago looked exactly like ads from 50 or 60 years ago – talking about ease of access into Canada from the U.S. and showing images of vast and barren landscapes. So the CTC decided to relaunch the brand just as Klassen was brought onboard as VP marketing.

Canada’s size and diversity was a major obstacle to the rebranding, as images of mountains didn’t represent Montreal, just as cityscapes didn’t represent the Rockies. ‘It quickly dawned on us that if we were going to try to develop a brand in a very traditional way, we weren’t going to get very far because we couldn’t sum up into one brand essence what Canada was all about,’ says Klassen. Through extensive research, they determined that the key was to focus on their customers. They determined that visitors to Canada were travellers instead of tourists – meaning they were travelling towards something instead of trying to get away from something. From this insight, a new brand and a new tagline was born: ‘Canada: Keep Exploring.’

To learn more about their target audience, Klassen and his team developed a tool with Environics called the Explorer Quotient which determined not only social values, but travel values as well. They discovered that visitors to Canada typically fall into one of two categories: ‘learners’ – those who want an educational or culturally interesting vacation, and ‘enthusiastic indulgers’ – free spirits looking for something profound that they can brag about. ‘Our travellers truly wanted authentic experiences,’ Klassen explains. ‘They didn’t want them Disney-fied or Vegas-fied.’ The CTC is currently testing a 30-question online EQ quiz for consumers (to be launched in the next few months), which determines what kind of traveller a person is and then gives suggestions for destinations in Canada.

While the ‘Keep Exploring’ message was being circulated around the world through print campaigns, Klassen and his team were considering alternative ways to get their message out there. ‘He truly lives the ‘Keep Exploring’ brand, which is about finding new ideas,’ says Gisèle Danis, executive director of global brand integration at the CTC. With a humble budget of $44 million for sales and marketing across the globe, they had to be innovative – and innovative they were.

Last January and February, the CTC launched the Canada Experiential Dome in London’s Canary Wharf district. Developed by DDB (the CTC’s AOR), the dome was part of a four-week advertising campaign which included OOH, print, online ads and street-level activity. The large glass dome had four points of entry, representing different regions of Canada; the Atlantic Coast, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. Each one offered sights and sounds of the area, for example, the Ontario section gave a Niagara wine region experience with the sounds of crickets and birds, real oak casks and icewine chocolates to sample. It all drove to the website, canada.travel, where visitors could win a two-week Canadian adventure. The results were a 53% increase in website visits and a 3% increase in trip bookings from the U.K.

A similarly inventive campaign took place in New York City last summer. Whispering Windows transformed three Manhattan storefronts, which were wrapped in vinyl with imagery of Canadian experiences and accompanied by sounds (such as tourists reacting to a polar bear sighting) emitted within a few meters of the display. Street teams encouraged passersby to check out the windows and handed out CTC branded bottled water. The campaign yielded a 40.3% acceptance rate, with 9,678 people interacting with the windows over a one-month period.

‘Greg is very open to new and innovative ways to penetrate markets,’ says Randy Williams, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, which represents tourism interests to government. ‘He’s not fixed on traditional means and I think that’s his greatest strength.’

Klassen also led the way for the CTC to take advantage of social media. This past summer, they explored uncharted territory with their Mexican Influencers program. After discovering that about 100 cultural figures heavily influence the Mexican population, the CTC invited four of them to visit different parts of Canada. They were each joined by a content creation team consisting of a writer, a videographer/photographer and a Mexican media partner who would document their journeys in their publication. Art director Felip Fernández del Paso (who was nominated for an Oscar for Frida) visited Alberta and was covered by Caras magazine (the Mexican version of Hello), celebrity chef Mónica Patiño visited Southern Ontario and Quebec and was covered by Travel & Leisure, and fashion designers Julia and Renata Franco visited Quebec and were covered by In Style.

Radar DDB then seeded content online through sites like YouTube, Flikr and MySpace, driving to a microsite, viajeacanada.com, created by Tribal DDB Vancouver. Upon their return, the CTC hosted a launch event that was well attended by Mexican media and VIPs. At the event, each influencer presented a creative installation representing their journey. At press time, they had generated over $200,000 worth of media coverage and about 13,000 page views of the microsite.

‘We didn’t ask too much of [the influencers],’ says Klassen. ‘We just hoped they would be inspired to talk about Canada. In the end, Felip said to the media in Mexico that he decided Canada was the new black.’ While there are no set plans yet, Klassen says he hopes to see the Influencer program applied to other countries in the near future.

While strong programs in individual countries have their benefits, one of the key lessons the CTC had learned from their research was that Canada’s customers have similar characteristics regardless of which country they come from. This led Klassen to realize that thinking globally was the way to go: ‘Now instead of nine-times the agency fees or nine-times the media plans, we can build one singular message that appeals to our travellers in all of our markets.’

This fall, the CTC embarked on a truly global campaign for the first time, with a social media twist. It unveiled four spots that appear on television in their target countries (it’s already playing in the U.K. and will roll out in other countries this year), and will circulate the web. The CTC turned to YouTube to find four 15-second videos of real visitors having genuine experiences, for example, Vancouver kayakers reacting when a seal jumps into the back of their kayak. The spots end with the ‘Canada Keep: Exploring’ message. ‘Our customers really didn’t want a glossy over-produced kind of [ad] that some of our competitors are doing,’ says Klassen. ‘Since we understand our customers so well, we wanted to create something that would really resonate with them.’

Klassen hopes that the traveller-generated video campaign will drum up interest in Canada leading up to the 2010 Olympics. In the coming year, the CTC will focus their efforts on the media that will cover the Games. They’ll be inviting the rights-holding media and select members of the unaccredited media to various parts of the country, giving them experiences they can write (or broadcast, or blog) home about. Klassen says the goal is to ‘change their perceptions in advance’ so that when they’re covering the human interest side of Canada and the Olympics, they’ll also get an understanding of what Canada is about.

Thinking outside the box seems to come naturally for Klassen, whose colleagues describe him as collaborative and open-minded. And this approach is doing wonders to an image that has gone from outdated to cutting-edge and cool. Of course, loving your subject matter doesn’t hurt. ‘It’s pretty great to get up in the morning and know what you’re doing is marketing Canada,’ says Yvonne van Dinther, managing director at Radar DDB. ‘I think he feels that very strongly.’

Watch your back, Australia.