Long live the double double

Choosing the five best marketers in Canada was both easier and more difficult than you'd think. For instance, when it came to picking the Top Client Overall, almost every member of the Strategy team independently voted for the same candidate, Tim Hortons.You just can't argue with a made-in-Canada success story that's giving even the mighty McDonald's a run for its money.
After that, it got harder. A short list of about 50 top marketers was laboriously whittled down as the merits and weaknesses of each were debated.

Choosing the five best marketers in Canada was both easier and more difficult than you’d think. For instance, when it came to picking the Top Client Overall, almost every member of the Strategy team independently voted for the same candidate, Tim Hortons.You just can’t argue with a made-in-Canada success story that’s giving even the mighty McDonald’s a run for its money.

After that, it got harder. A short list of about 50 top marketers was laboriously whittled down as the merits and weaknesses of each were debated.

The winners are those that lead their respective categories when it comes to marketing strategy, creativity and results. Some won because they took great risks, such as Pfizer, Cadbury Trebor Allan and Covenant House, while others won because they know exactly where they’re going and how to get there, such as Tim Hortons and Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

What they all have in common is that they prove once again that advertising is a powerful tool: able to not only make or break businesses, but change public perception as well.

TOP CLIENT OVERALL: Tim Hortons

HEATH & BEAUTY: Pfizer

ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES: Mike’s Hard Lemonade

PACKAGED GOODS: Cadbury Trebor Allan

NON-PROFIT ORGANIZATION: Covenant House

If all the caffeinated Canadians who habitually hit their local Tim Hortons suddenly burst into song – and they just might – it’s a cinch which ditty they’d warble: You Made Me Love You.

That we Canucks have a serious crush on the attractive, 38-year-old, coast-to-coast restaurant chain is irrefutable by any criteria. To name just one, Tim Hortons’ annual sales – now estimated to be topping $2 billion – are on track to surpass those of mighty McDonald’s in Canada this year.

But it takes more than consistently good coffee and munchies, 24/7 accessibility and quick, congenial service to make an entire nation fall in love. It takes the calibre of marketing savvy that landed Tim Hortons at the apex of Strategy’s Top Clients list this year, not just in the QSR category, but overall.

Yet deconstructing that savvy isn’t exactly tough. What the Tim Hortons marketing team has done, especially since hiring Toronto-based Enterprise Creative Selling (after dropping Saatchi) in 1991, is created a brand that represents an idealized image of the Canadian national character: friendly, neighbourly, unpretentious, gently playful, frugal, trustworthy and, yes, clean.

The wisdom in that strategy seems so self-evident today it’s hard to remember a time when only a dreamer would risk everything on the proposition that Canadians would fall in love with their own reflection – rather than something glitzier emanating from elsewhere.

Celebrating genus Canadensis

certainly wasn’t considered a dynamite marketing strategy back in pre-Centennial 1964. That’s when legendary hockey player Tim Horton opened a small quick-service shop in Hamilton, Ont. On the menu were only two items: coffee and doughnuts.

By the time Horton died in a car crash 10 years later, his eponymous business encompassed 40 restaurants. Ron Joyce, a former police officer who became Horton’s partner in 1967, then bought the chain outright and moved its headquarters to Oakville, Ont., where it continues as The TDL Group. Ever since, Joyce’s team has steadily extended the menu, the number of stores and the geographical sweep.

Today, Tim Hortons outlets – 95% of which are franchisee-owned and operated – number 2,049 in Canada and 145 in the northern U.S. There are more than 55,000 staff members throughout North America, 650 of them at head office.

In tandem with the expansion from strictly coffee and baked goods to a range of lunch items, the initially suburban locales have spread out to encompass freestanding downtown operations as well as stores within shopping malls, hospitals, universities and highway outlets, including the 300 ‘On the Run’ spots Tim Hortons opened in Esso stations this March.

In 1995, the giant, Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy’s International chain bought Tim Hortons for $580 million. That acquisition has paid off nicely ever since, with Tim Hortons’ sales growth rates frequently topping those of its parent. Last month alone, according to news accounts, Wendy’s’ American sales grew 7.3% over the previous June, while Tim Hortons’ rose by 10.5%. This is especially impressive in light of the overall 3% growth rate in the American QSR industry.

All this is several quantum leaps from the company’s modest beginnings. Yet innovative marketing has been a Tim Hortons hallmark from day one. The original partners pioneered not only the fast-food concept in Canada, but also sports marketing. Their first stores were painted blue and white to capitalize on Horton’s fame as a Toronto Maple Leafs player. And whenever a new location opened in the early days, legendary Leafs such as Johnny Bower and Frank Mahovlich would appear to sign autographs.

Another example of the company’s originality, as well as its commitment to proactive participation in community life, was the creation of the non-profit Tim Hortons Children’s Foundation shortly after Horton’s death. In addition to sponsoring some 33,000 four- to six-year-olds in Timbit hockey leagues annually, the foundation operates five camps at which needy Canadian and American children enjoy 10 summer days and five winter days of activities.

But however diversified or sophisticated its operations became, Tim Hortons’ guiding philosophy remained rock steady, says Cathy Whelan Molloy, TDL’s VP of brand advertising and merchandising.

‘In everything we do, we’ve always focused on the concept of being that friendly, unpretentious, good neighbour you’d want living down the block from you.’

Paul Wales, EVP and CD at Enterprise Creative Selling, applauds the sagacity of that approach and says he greatly appreciates working with such a self-aware client.

‘The Tim Hortons people have always known exactly who and what their brand stands for and they’ve consistently stayed true to that. But even though they stick with that winning brand personality, they also make sure their advertising is rooted in today’s realities.’

And that, says brand management consultant Laurence Bernstein, managing partner with Toronto’s Bay Charles Consulting, is exactly why Tim Hortons has become one of a scant few ‘iconic’ Canadian brands to ‘become inextricably woven into Canada’s social fabric.’

‘Tim Hortons never fakes it,’ adds Philippe Garneau, a partner at Toronto’s Garneau Würstlin Philp Brand Engineering. ‘In fact, I would argue that, speaking executionally, they actually celebrate not faking it.

‘Tim Hortons’ campaigns consistently and charmingly communicate a positive and believable truth about the Canadians who go there daily. And they do so without creative amplification or borrowed interest, [which is] no mean feat. Tim Hortons dares to hold a mirror up to Canadians and challenges them to like what they see.’

This concept is arguably best exemplified in the ‘True Stories’ television vignettes, which Molloy says are based on the best of hundreds of suggestions the company receives from its customers every year. Typically heart-warming is a current TV spot featuring a young man hopelessly stumbling through his first day at a new job. He cheers up considerably when lunchtime arrives and he spies Tim Hortons’ familiar red sign. Tagline: ‘Come home for lunch.’

No discussion of Tim Hortons’ marketing perspicacity would be complete without mentioning the chain’s two most playful shticks. One is the bite-sized Timbit doughnut hole confections, which were introduced in 1976 and became so popular they entered the vernacular.

The two Timbits spots currently on television and radio typify the mischievous style adopted for this product. In the TV commercial, a father reaches in the window of the family car to grab a few Double Chocolate Timbits out of the box on the back seat, only to be caught in the act when his dog hits the power-window button and traps his arm. In the radio spot, a shrink counsels someone who loves Timbits not wisely but too well to ‘just walk away,’ then gives up when audible munching is heard, saying ‘Lost another one.’

Of course, Tim Hortons’ other most popular and playful annual campaign is the widely imitated Roll Up the Rim to Win customer reward program that offers prizes ranging from, what else, coffee and doughnuts to luxury cars.

Probably the most ultra-Canadian of the Roll Up the Rim TV ads appeared a few years ago and resonated strongly with everyone who’s ever had an uncomfortable experience crossing over the U.S. border. Asked to prove his nationality to a suspicious guard, our hero simply rolls his Rs while uttering ‘roll up the rim to win.’

Ironically, while Tim Hortons has won the hearts and minds of countless Canadians, and is wooing Americans at a rapid clip, the company consistently gets the cold shoulder from the evidently stone-hearted souls who hand out advertising awards.

This doesn’t bother TDL’s Molloy or ECS’s Wales, both of whom insist that they’re well satisfied with just pleasing their customers. But Philippe Garneau is peeved on their behalf and thinks he knows what’s holding back a host of well-deserved awards.

‘I suspect most judges want the advertising for a national leader like Tim Hortons to say something cool and hip about who we are as a people. They wish the ads implied that we are all clever, quirky, urban and daring which is how they think of themselves.

‘But I say long live double cream, double sugar and cashiers named Betty. Congratulations, Tim Hortons. Don’t go changing.’