Canada who? (column)

The Township's Karen Howe finds truth in parody and builds her case for why American marketers must realize our differences.


By Karen Howe

Never mind Trump and his alarming hair. The real problem with America is that it still doesn’t get Canada.

Last July I was at a dinner party in Louisville chatting with a doctor I’d just met. When she found out I was from Toronto she allowed that it must be nice for me to have a break from all that snow. This woman – who has a PhD – thought the entirety of Canada was buried under snow year round.

Sadly, she is not alone. There are Americans who, if they know us at all, think we only speak French, live in igloos and have moose wandering amongst our birch bark canoes.

As of this Canada Day we have been next-door neighbours to the United States for 150 years – and they still don’t really know us. We are their largest trading partner, with the longest undefended border in the world (this week, anyway) yet American marketers seem to either ignore us or are tone deaf to Canadian differences.

As Canadians we are responsible for some of the greatest things in the world. No, not just beer, hockey, poutine and universal healthcare. We lay claim to Drake, Seth Rogan, Celine Dion, Shania Twain and Mike Myers. You can thank us for Russell Peters, k.d. Lang, Michael Bublé and Neil Young. All the best Ryans (Gosling and Reynolds) are ours. Remember the hand wringing when Leonard Cohen died? He was one of ours. Look up “multicultural” you will see a map of Canada; we are its smug definition. Two of the best Justins are ours: the Biebs and Trudeau.

And while we are on that subject, our leader has better hair than theirs. So what more do we have to get on their radar screen?

I recently watched a great video that parodied a big fictional U.S. agency charged with rebranding Canada. The creative team was hard at work reinventing our flag, our anthem, and our general disposition. Essentially, it was recasting us to be more American. They felt that what was wrong with Canada was that it wasn’t America. For me it laid bare a quirky truth, the Americans who notice us, and grasp that we aren’t the same as them think that we should be. Look no further than our own industry.

Many large U.S. brands cling fervently to the belief that they can run the same campaign up here if they just make a flurry of superficial changes, they switch out the blue mail boxes for red, replace the starry flags with a maple leaf, then all will be good; the cash registers will ring.

Well, it doesn’t quite work that way. We are a fantastic market for American brands. There’s over 35 million of us. We’re educated, stable, solvent and we don’t use Twitter to create public policy. But if American brands are going to be a success up here, there are nuanced differences which require parsing.

For example, I’ve seen numerous studies that show Canadians don’t care for the heavy-handed opponent-bashing kind of political advertising that is epidemic in the States. That same distaste extends to bare-knuckled tactics in consumer packaged goods. For the most part, we find it a little too brash for our tastes.

Canadians aren’t swept up in the grandiose, anthemic style of work that defines so many iconic Yankee brands, especially for beer, and especially at Super Bowl time. We don’t do chest thumpery.

But there are greater gaps in practical knowledge. I worked with clients on a large U.S. automotive brand and they could not grasp the need to advertise snow tires in the winter in Quebec – where it is the law. This same advertiser would also hand us campaigns centred on Nascar to run in Canada, which matters to very few Canadians.

My learning on another very large U.S. brand is that the Quebecois feel strongly about work being created specifically for their market, often with their identifiable celebrities. Subtitles and dubbing will not cut it. And Quebec represents 30% of the Canadian market. English Canada is more used to sharing U.S. culture through movies and TV. But a watchful eye just makes sense, because even the Anglos can bridle from time to time.

Many American campaigns are black and white, literally, whereas our advertising tends to be more racially diverse, as reflects our population.

College football and cake smashing in faces at weddings are not meaningful touchstones for us. We don’t just have college here, we also have universities. We love the letter “u” and as a result spell many words differently. Speaking of Canuck lexicon, it’s garbage not trash, face cloth not wash cloth, bathroom not restroom, chocolate bar not candy bar and pop not soda. Black Friday is not our thing (although even that is getting blurry) and we love our Victoria Day weekend (aka “May 2-4”, named for our cases of beer). And some, but not all of us, say “eh”.

Our mantra in advertising is to understand the audience we wish to connect with. Considering we represent a population the size of California I think it’s worth an American company taking the time to get to know us more intimately.

So America, I don’t want to rush things, but it’s time to connect with Canada. It just makes good business sense. The other upside is if you need a place to move to after the next election, you’ll already know your neighbours to the north.

Just knock on the door.

KAREN-HOWE-PIC-higher-rez-300x263Karen Howe is president of The Township.