Tim Hortons recounts Wayne Gretzky’s origin story

With the launch of "The Autograph," the coffee chain continues to focus on telling emotional stories with an element of truth to them.


The idea for Tim Hortons’ latest TV ad came out of a coffee meeting with Wayne Gretzky.

Paloma Azulay, CMO for the brand, asked Gretzky if he had any memories of Tim Horton, the defenceman behind the coffee and donut chain that still carries his name. Gretzky let slip that his father, Walter, had recently found a napkin, signed by Horton and handed to his son during a chance meeting at a Tim’s restaurant in Brantford, Ont., back in 1968. As legend has it, that meeting inspired Gretzky to pursue professional hockey – arguably changing the course of Canada’s national sport.

That, as far as truth-based advertising narratives go, is about as good as it gets. Azulay knew it, and she decided at that moment that it would become the foundation of “The Autograph,” the chain’s seventh spot in its ongoing “True Stories” platform, relaunched in November last year.

Though the QSR chain had initially committed to launching only five videos as part of the revitalized “True Stories” series (including one for its Roll Up the Rim promotion in January), Azulay says the brand continues wanting to inject “bits and pieces” of truth in all its creative campaigns. In January, for example, it highlighted the real-life dedication of Toronto Raptors’ fan Nav Bhatia, who held the same courtside seat during every home game at Scotiabank Arena for 24 years.

“We are always looking to find ways, especially when we’re partnering with celebrities, to talk about authentic moments that the brand and the people have with our brand,” she says. “When we launched the Shawn Mendes campaign [in August], even though the form of the film was not a classic ‘True Story’ in terms of the narrative, it was inspired on the real story that Shawn had when he was a little boy and used to come to Tim’s to have timbits.”

The fact that Gretzky’s story came up organically and was “really unexpected” speaks to how Tim’s is approaching the second-generation “True Stories” platform now that it’s more than a year old, Azulay says. The brand will continue looking for the best stories – those with the potential to evoke strong emotion, from laughter to tears – and, once found, determine how to execute from there.

This one felt like a story the company had been waiting to tell for more than 50 years and, as such, required upping the spend on production. Agency Gut, leading creative, worked with Canadian directors Jon and Torey to create a video that feels like a feature film, Azulay says.

The commercial will air for the first time on TV during the World Junior Hockey Championships, which begin on Dec. 26 and run until Jan. 5. The company will also be handing out limited-edition tumblers featuring the Horton’s autograph in restaurants starting Jan. 15, continuing on a strategy to launch campaign-specific cups and merchandise.

Although the World Junior Championships are considered an important marketing opportunity for the brand, both because of the connection to its hockey positioning and the ability to reach younger audiences who may be unfamiliar with its founder’s story, Azulay says Tim Hortons did not “retrofit” or create “The Autograph” for the occasion. Rather, it decided to hold onto to the creative idea in order to launch it during the Juniors.

Azulay took over as CMO in November, replacing Axel Schwan, who now serves as regional president for the QSR in Canada and the U.S. Global president Alex Macedo maintains a focus on international markets, which Tim’s has recently made a priority growth area.

Azulay remains focused on implementing a strategy that began before her. “We are working to make our strategy work harder for the brand, with the same pillars we had before,” she says. “It’s good to keep on the same track, work with the same people. It gives consistency to the strategy.”