Tim Hortons takes support for hockey to Kenya

The QSR brought twelve players from the country's only team to Canada as part of its annual hockey campaign.

Tim Hortons

Few Canadian brands have as strong a connection to hockey as Tim Hortons, itself founded by the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman of the same name in the 1960s. Over the years, the coffee chain has supported the sport both nationally and locally, from the professional level down to the minor leagues, and it has been a regular focal point of its marketing.

Now, it’s extending that support internationally.

As part of the brand’s annual marketing efforts around the start of the hockey season, agency Zulu Alpha Kilo approached Tim Hortons with the idea of supporting Kenya’s only ice hockey team, the Ice Lions. The players gather weekly on the only ice rink in East and Central Africa, but have no one to play against.

For the campaign, Tim Hortons flew 12 members of the senior Ice Lions team to Canada to play against their first game against an opposing team. It handed them new hockey equipment and personalized jerseys, and had hockey stars Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon make a surprise visit. The video capturing their excitement and the joy of the team is now being circulated on social.

When Zulu approached the brand with the idea, it immediately “fell in love with the [Ice Lions’] story and the idea that they play ice hockey in Kenya against all odds,” says Jana Goodbaum, lead of global brand image at Tim Hortons.

The idea came out of a brief for Tim Hortons’ hockey trading cards, says Tim Hopkins, strategic planner at Zulu. “Part of that was bringing to life Tim Hortons’ brand purpose, sharing the best of Canada with the world. A big part of that is obviously hockey.”

Zak Mroueh, CCO and founder at Zulu, says the campaign plays to Canadian values and that including Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon was about reflecting those values, both being Canadian and “wholesome, likeable, humble and down to earth even after all their success.”

While earned media was part of the strategy, Tim Hortons has been putting some spend behind the video, says Goodbaum. So far, she says the company has been “blown away” by the response here in Canada, with people suggesting online that it makes them proud to be Canadian, or that it reminds them of when they first started playing hockey.

That’s an important result for a brand that has faced significant challenges over the last year, having complaints from franchisees, concerns over cost-cutting measures and a falling in several brand reputation surveys.

But Goodbaum says the campaign was “not specifically” about addressing some of those challenges. “To be honest, we’re very passionate about hockey, and we found a team who love hockey as much as we do, and it just lines up with our commitment to supporting hockey.”

Nor was it connected to its global ambitions as a brand, says Goodbaum. It recently announced plans to develop and open more than 1,500 locations in China over the next ten years. In recent years, it has also opened locations in the U.K., Philippines, Mexico and Spain as part of larger international growth plans.

Goodbaum says Tim’s has no plans for similar campaigns around the support of international hockey, although Mroueh says the agency is always thinking about where it could take the concept next. As part of the overall effort, Tim Hortons donated to Kenya’s Youth Hockey League to help ensure the sustainability of the team, which opens the door for revisiting how the Ice Lions are doing down the line.

For now, Goodbaum says the company is “going to keep telling amazing stories about how the brand impacts of guests’ lives.”

As part of the hockey program supporting the sale of Tim Hortons’ hockey cards, another spot featuring Crosby and MacKinnon has been in market for about three weeks.