What makes a Brand of the Year

Publisher Mary Maddever on how this year's top brands found a gap, picked a lane and stuck to it.

This article appears in the October 2017 issue of strategy.

A&W root beer is one of those legit iconic things, evocative of simpler times. It’s good memories in a frosty mug. It’s also a guilty pleasure in our calorie-aware, health-focused climate.

Back when burger joints first tried healthier options, salads were the go-to. For QSR franchisees, promoting salad over fries was deemed high lunacy. For consumers, the intrepid few who ordered QSR “greens” often found them pale, wilty or puzzlingly “out of stock.”

Fast-salad joints popped up to fill that void, and between the proliferation of choice and the challenge of engaging mass audiences, it now takes a bigger idea and a deeper commitment for brands to stand out.

A&W’s long-term strategy to improve the menu – from antibiotic/hormone/steroid-free food to the new sarsaparilla and cane sugar root beer (pictured above) – is a great example of what we look for in a Brand Of the Year.

The fact that A&W found a way to tackle that trickiest of QSR dilemmas – shifting to a better-for-you fast food consideration set – and committed to it, makes it a BOY. From its crafty Root Brewery, to efforts battling packaging waste, the journey continues on all fronts.

A category facing changing consumer tastes, where iconic products are at odds with trends, is a shared challenge. And while A&W’s people-on-the-street spots may not be the sexiest campaign, the strategy made the brand relevant with a new generation.

Nissan, on the other hand, went old-school cinematic with vehicles battling nature. It made the BOY cut because it stuck with its Canadian-originated concept (born of a safety insight) long enough to outmanoeuvre competitors via memorable brand building.

SAQ is here because Inspire shows how a vision for a loyalty program can inspire rabid loyalty – and open the door to DNA-level, customized data-driven direct marketing.

Rethink Breast Cancer impressed us as a made-in-Canada brand whose unique voice propelled it across borders, while creating content that is merch, messaging and therapy all in one. Wealthsimple is another Canadian launch expanding into new markets, fuelled by a distinct brand persona and model built to meet a void.

Our brands to watch (Saje, Matt & Nat and Collective Arts) followed the same BOY strategy – they found a gap, picked a lane and stuck to it.

We hope the behind-the-strategy stories spark ideas and inspire big-picture Canadian branding investment and perseverance. And for some serious, long-term brand building, read up on CIBC’s 150-year case study.

For a more intimate discussion of how to build brands for the future, the Marketing Evolution: C-Suite Summit is coming up in February, where we’ll dive into issues facing marketing leaders, from data and AI to talent and training.

As for the rest of 2017, we hope to see you at the Agency of the Year gala in November and at the MIAs in December!

Cheers, mm

Mary Maddever, SVP/Publisher