What should Canada Day marketing look like in 2021?

What consumers feel is appropriate for brands, and the general sentiment that has been circulating in marketing departments.
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Recent discoveries at former residential school sites over the last month have brought into sharp relief the fact that there are parts of Canada’s history and growth as a nation that might not be something we should be celebrating.

And the calls for cancelling or rethinking celebrations have reached Canada’s marketing departments.

Several of the creative and media agencies strategy spoke to said that these conversations have been going on throughout June. A spokesperson for a major social media company told strategy that numerous advertisers had approached it seeking advice on whether to pause or reconsider previously planned campaigns.

The Zeno Group recently tried to get a gauge on consumer sentiment around brand messaging on Canada Day, polling a nationally representative sample of 1,520 people on June 24 and 25.

According to the survey, a majority of Canadians (56%) say it is acceptable for a brand to post “positive” social media content related to Canada Day this year, compared to 21% who say it is unacceptable and 23% who are unsure. Unsurprisingly, those results largely shift to align with whether or not someone plans to have their own personal celebration (a group that includes more men, Western Canadians) or will not out of respect for Indigenous communities (a group that includes more people under 35 and British Columbians).

However, Canadians are more split on what kind of messaging they categorize as “acceptable.” While 40% of respondents said they’d support “celebratory” messaging, 41% said they’d support calls from brands for Canadians “to reflect on the country’s history and honour the culture and traditions of Indigenous peoples.”

A “middle ground” option – with brands acknowledging the long weekend without explicitly mentioning “Canada Day” – was only supported by 7% of Canadians, suggesting that Canadians want brands to acknowledge what is going on in some way, instead of avoiding the issue.

Among the people who don’t believe any kind of “positive” messaging from brands is appropriate, 61% said they’d prefer messages of historical reflection, with 23% saying they’d prefer brands stay silent altogether.

Regardless of their feelings on the issue, Canadians also seem to be indifferent to taking action in response to the kind of messaging a brand puts out on Canada Day, with 46% uninteresting in taking actions and 18% not engaging with brands on social media in the first place. Another 13%, which Zeno describes as a “small but vocal minority,” say they would take action to express their dissatisfaction with the posts, including refusing to purchase a product or service (6%), unfollowing or blocking the brand (6%), calling them out publicly (5%) and contacting the brand directly to encourage them to remove the messaging (3%).

Brands need to be aware of this “small but vocal minority,” as they are either made up of Indigenous voices or people supporting them, and their call to reconsider Canada Day as a moment for celebration is likely to continue building support, as it has been for several years.

But for this year, how exactly these consumer sentiments and internal conversations will impact marketing plans might not be fully clear until after Canada Day has come and gone. The agencies strategy spoke to were not at liberty to divulge details about specific clients, but several did say that they did not have any major above-the-line campaigns planned this year anyway, with most activities taking the form of things clients handle internally, such as social media posts, sales and promotional events. Among those that did have knowledge of clients’ Canada Day activities, there was a mix of those that had made pivots and those that planned to “stay the course,” though the consensus leaned towards the former.

A look across Canada’s major retailers shows that while many of them are running promotional events this week and through the long weekend, they are – with a few exceptions – devoid of “Canada Day” messaging, instead focusing on things like the arrival of summer, or sales specific to certain product categories. The brands strategy reached out to did not respond to requests for comment by press time about whether or not their sale events were pivoted away from Canada Day messaging, or if they had committed to the summer approach from the start.

One of the companies that did offer an on-the-record comment to strategy was Molson Coors.

While its flagship Molson Canadian brand did a big push around supporting local breweries last year, a Molson Coors spokesperson said it did not have any “big” campaigns specific to Canada Day this year – instead focusing on the upcoming Olympics – but that it has already taken a series of internal and external actions including referring educational resources to employees and contributing to organizations that provide counselling, education and justice support for Indigenous peoples and communities across Canada.

“With our company being founded in Canada and having facilities and people across the nation, we wanted to help on the corporate level inside and out,” they said.

There is also a push on the agency side to do right by Canada’s Indigenous communities on July 1. The ICA is encouraging people to donate the salary they receive on the statutory holiday to a charity that supports Indigenous people or to an Indigenous-owned business, while taking the day to educate themselves personally on the history of Indigenous people within Canada. Using the “#ReconcileCanadaDay” hashtag, people can share where they are sending their money and the educational resources they are using, and the ICA is sending out a bulletin to its membership through its app and email list today to encourage them to participate.

With files from Mike Connell

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