How Canadian Tire became Canada’s most admired brand

SVP Susan O'Brien reveals the strategy that saw the retailer top Leger's annual survey.

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Canadian Tire execs “hunkered down” on burnishing its brand identity with the specific goal of topping Leger’s annual reputation study, says its SVP marketing and corporate affairs, Susan O’Brien.

This year the national brand, which started as a corner store run by two brothers in Toronto in 1922, was named Canada’s most admired company (followed closely by Silicon Valley’s Google), moving up from #3 last year. Canadian Tire has been climbing the list since 2013, when it landed at #8. Other Canadian retailers followed behind, with Dollarama at #3 and Shoppers Drug Mart at #4 this year.

“Being number one in brand is very important to us and we sort of stated it as an ambition,” says O’Brien, adding that her company had its eye on the Leger prize when it started to look at different brands within its family of companies several years ago.

The Canadian company has been focused on celebrating the retailers’ 97-year-strong history in the Great White North, while also serving Canadians’ current needs and preparing for future trends in the competitive retailing sector. The company has a committee within its board dedicated to brand and which focuses on measuring and governing goodwill, she notes.

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Giving back pays off

A key to Canadian Tire’s strong brand affinity is its focus on giving back. The retailer started its Jumpstart Charity in 2005 and the SVP believes the program is one of the main reasons Canadians have a strong affinity for the brand. The Jumpstart program initially focused on underprivileged kids but has since expanded to include accessibility grants and funding inclusive playgrounds about two years ago.

The positive message about inclusivity was reinforced last year via the retailer’s partnership with the Olympics, with its “First Skate” spot effectively tugging at the heartstrings of people from coast-to-coast. The “good old-fashioned advertising,” as O’Brien puts it, showed a dad building an accessible sledge so his son can play ice hockey. Through “First Skate,” the retailer got to remind Canadians about “real Canadian values” which “Canadian Tire has the right to do,” she adds, referencing the retailers’ almost 100-year history.

Franchisees, or what O’Brien calls “dealers,” are also key to the Canadian Tire brand’s altruistic identity, with local dealers being entrenched in their communities, often participating in local rotary clubs and other charitable groups.

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A willingness to explore

Another key to its success, and ultimately to landing at the top of Leger’s list this year, has been a commitment to making data-driven decisions, as well as the willingness to test new ideas, says the marketer.

While Canadian Tire has focused on celebrating its deep roots in marketing campaigns, in recent years, the retailer has actively started looking to the future of shopping, says O’Brien. It launched online pick-up kiosks in select stores last fall, where customers can order items online and then retrieve those purchases in-store at their convenience. It also got into the competitive home delivery game in 2017 in a bid to compete against American giants, such as Amazon and Walmart.

Last spring, the brand launched its Triangle Rewards loyalty and credit card program, allowing customers to redeem and collect a digital version of Canadian Tire Money at Canadian Tire and its other banner retailers, including Sport Chek, Mark’s and Atmosphere. While O’Brien did not share specific stats about the nearly year-old program, she says it has successfully created a way for the retailer to collect meaningful data on what its customers want and don’t want. For example, while some customers still want printed flyers in the mail, the company now gives out close to five million one-to-one offers online per week, says O’Brien. 

Along with focusing on data, the retailer has made a concerted effort to move beyond the stereotype that it’s a place where mainly men go to buy things like, well, tires. Its stores now stock high-end brands, such as Dyson, Nespresso and Vitamix, that appeal more to women.

In addition, the chain, which has more than 500 bricks-and-mortar location across Canada, always looks to ensure there’s consistency across all of its stores. “At Canadian Tire we believe we are part of the country’s DNA and the cultural fabric so having this strong brand is important not only to us, but to Canadians,” she says. “We spend a lot of time on what we stand for and we always say we are here for the jobs and joys of life in Canada, so what you will never experience is a store that doesn’t have all five of our divisions: living, fixing, playing, driving and seasonal.”