Canada’s store turns 100

As Canadian Tire has evolved from an auto store to a place where Canadians find everything, so too has its marketing.
01-Old Retail Storefront

First Toronto location opens in 1923.

By Will Novosedlik

This story was originally published in the 2022 Spring issue of strategy magazine.

15-SS72 Catalogue

CTC celebrates its 50th anniversary.

There’s nothing quite as Canadian as Catherine O’Hara talking about Canadian Tire. In a recent Instagram post, the star of Schitt’s Creek, Home Alone and Best in Show reminisced about how, when their boys were little, she and her husband had a bright idea. For the sons’ birthdays, they would set each of them loose at Canadian Tire so they could pick out their own presents.

It became a tradition they continued for 20 years. “You’ve heard the saying ‘like a kid in a candy store’? Well, for our family, it should be ‘like a kid in a Canadian Tire store,’” O’Hara wrote.

It’s difficult to imagine saying that about another brand. Sure, Tim Horton’s comes close, but you can’t buy camping equipment or skates at Timmies while your car is on a hoist getting the oil changed. There’s something unassumingly Canadian about the Tire. It’s the lumberjack shirt of brands. Unpretentious, practical, always there when you need it and known to every living Canadian, the 100-year-old retailer has earned its place in our hearts and minds as “Canada’s Store.”

1934 RoadMap

A road map was given to customers as handy guide in the 1930s.

J.W. Billes and his brother A.J. – who cofounded the Canadian Tire Corporation (CTC) in 1922 – were born entrepreneurs. And like the small business owners they were, the brothers showed an early talent for pivoting whenever circumstances required it.

For instance, every car needs tires, but back in 1922 it took longer to wear them out because people tended not to drive during the winter. That meant no tire sales until the spring thaw. Realizing that folks needed a place to store their vehicles when the snow arrived, J.W. and A.J. turned their store into a storage facility for 20 cars while it was closed for the winter.

By 1924 they had moved to their first long-term location in downtown Toronto, where they honed their business model – low prices, loyal employees, a broad array of products, multiple stores run by independent dealer-owners and clever marketing.

1928 catalogue

The retailer’s first-ever catalogue in 1926.

One of their early promotional ideas was a free one- page poster-sized “catalogue,” with price lists on the  front and a sought-after road map on the back. Doesn’t sound like much in the age of GPS, but road maps were hard to come by in the 1920s. Around 1930 they started selling radios, another emerging, fast-growing business. A great demonstration of their instinct for business diversification, this made Canadian Tire one of North America’s largest radio retailers within a decade.

Another idea was to get into sporting goods. Their logic was if a kid got their first bike from the store, they’d be back for tires and car parts when they grew up. Soon they were also selling camping, fishing and hunting equipment, sensing there was a natural connection between cars and outdoor recreation, a combination that eventually showed up in their print ads and catalogues.

When the brothers began to sell their own motor oil under the now famous Motomaster name, they decided it needed a logo. The back-of-the-napkin story was that while A.J. was working on the design of an A-frame family cottage, he sketched an isosceles triangle, rotated it 180 degrees so that the apex was on the bottom, and added a maple leaf on top. That logo is still in use today.

The brothers were early advocates of customer experience as a marketing principle. An example was  their launch of road hazard insurance in 1931. Roads at the time were pretty bad, and tire manufacturers guaranteed their products against defects but not road-induced damage. So Canadian Tire addressed that gap by insuring its tires for one year against road damage. The company either repaired the damaged tire for free or replaced it at a reduced price, depending on how long it had been in use. Its main competitor, Consolidated Tires, could not match the offer. Customers were thrilled. Business boomed.

Another unique customer experience detail was its merchandising model. Back in the day, merchandise was on display in closed glass cabinets to prevent theft. The customer would find what they needed and then go to a long counter to ask a sales clerk to fetch it. When the store was busy, the order counter could get pretty chaotic so the company decided to speed things up by putting the sales clerks on roller skates. It stayed that way until 1956,  when CTC finally converted to the self- service model it has today.

From the 1960s onwards, the story of Canadian Tire is one of growth. It came in the form of new stores, distribution centres and key acquisitions, including banners like Mark’s Work Warehouse, Sport Chek, ProHockey Life and Party City.  It also holds an exclusive partnership with several brands to carry its products in Canada, such as Petco.

Albert ManCTC survived – and indeed thrived – in the face of the big box invasion by American brands, which saw Walmart, Lowe’s and Home Depot set up shop in Canada, often right across the street. During the ‘90s, then-CEO Stephen Bachand and SVP marketing Wayne Sales were convinced that instead of trying to emulate the American invaders, CTC should double down on what made it great: its heritage as an iconic Canadian brand, as well as its coast-to-coast dealer network, unique marketing assets like Canadian Tire Money, and the fact that, for 90% of Canadians, there was a CT store within a 15-minute drive from home.

Bike1In the ‘80s CTC began a 25-year partnership with Doner Advertising of Detroit, which created some classic spots from the company’s early experiments with TV. Interestingly, it did not invest in TV until 1977, which was late in the game by most standards. Senior brass thought TV was too expensive, but when one of CTC’s Quebec dealers decided to give it a try, the results were so dramatic that headquarters decided it was time.

Doner’s “Albert” – which told the story of how the retailer played a role in a young boy’s journey to became a professional hockey player – and “Bike Story”– featuring another kid longing for a bike he found in the Canadian Tire catalogue – focused on emotional moments that capitalized on Canadian’s memories of the brand they grew up with.

Along with those two classics, Doner created the “Give like Santa, Save like Scrooge” Christmas campaign to remind Canadians of CTC’s long tradition of value messaging. Scrooge lasted for 21 Christmases.

The emotional tone established by Doner was picked up by its partner agencies like Taxi (which was CT’s AOR from 2005 to 2021), Leo Burnett and Cleansheet Communications. Over the years, the retailers’ commercials have continued to capture moments that resonate with our collective sense of what it means to be Canadian – which Eva Salem, SVP marketing and brand says is one of two narrative streams that CT still taps into.“Canadian Tire has a track record of turning small moments into relatable stories. They’re based on simple insights and told in what has become a very authentic voice,” she says.

Salem points to “Wheels” by Cleansheet Communications as an example. Part of Canadian Tire’s “We All Play for Canada” platform, the spot tells the story of how a disabled boy in a wheelchair is pleasantly surprised when the boy next door and a group of his friends include him in a game of basketball. They even the odds by playing on wagons and tricycles as makeshift wheelchairs.

whellchair ball2“It was an instant viral sensation, getting somewhere around 17 million views in the first few days, with no paid media put against it,” says Salem. It’s still getting hits – 252 million at last count, according to Cleansheet.

Salem says that the second narrative stream “focuses on our functional role as the retailer that makes life in Canada better by equipping Canadians for the jobs and joys of the seasons in this country.”

It includes the “Tested for Life in Canada” series, a long-running platform that has allowed CT to show off the quality of its various products, with the retailer recalling the “Tested” seal that appeared on products in CT stores as far back as 1935.

Finally, the marketer describes its long-running “Canada’s Store” (also by Taxi) as a platform that successfully delivered on both fronts.

“[Canada’s Store] has given us so much over its 12-year run,” says Salem. “It has allowed us to address our eclectic assortment of products. It’s allowed us to address all seasons. And it’s allowed us to show both the emotional and functional sides of our messaging platform. It’s been one of the brand’s greatest accomplishments and certainly one of the high points of my career.”

Ava For Prime Minister

The brand opened 2022 with an anniversary campaign, saluting to the “Next 100 Years.”

The year 2022 has already been a very busy year for Salem and her team. In celebration of its 100-year story, Canadian Tire recently launched an anniversary campaign, which was led by Leo Burnett, in collaboration with Canadian Tire’s new AOR Publicis, while Veritas handled PR, Touche on media and OneMethod leading social.

The first phase included “Snapshots of a Century,” reprising some of the retailer’s most iconic campaigns over the years. “We went out to influencers like Catherine O’Hara, Ryan Reynolds, Scott McGillivray, Ashley Callingbull, Kayla Grey and Priyanka, as well as to the rest of our customer base, and asked them to give us their favourite Canadian Tire memory. Thousands of Canadians have shared their stories,” says Salem.

Next, an anniversary TV commercial will feature Canadian Tire’s own rendition of Ahead of a Century by The Tragically Hip, which Salem says will be performed by youth choir Young Voices Toronto, as well as Quebec artists 2Freres for a French version. There will also be an online contest and auction, supported by The Tragically Hip with the band donating signed memorabilia to Jumpstart’s Girls in Sport Initiative.

Going forward, Salem is optimistic about steering the brand into the next 100 years, having recently revitalized its marketing strategy. “As we evolve from ‘being there for Canadians’ – which in recent years has been led by initiatives like our COVID-19 Relief Fund and Jumpstart Sport Relief Fund – to ‘making life in Canada better,’ we’re focusing on our core values and  supporting our communities where they need it most.”

Mt Everest_Mt Kilimanjaro CT Team.Jumpstart

Employees climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for Jumpstart.

For instance, this year’s “We All Play for Canada” platform brought to life the spirit of the Olympic and Paralympic Games while encouraging Canadians to connect with one another through sport and cheering on Team Canada through a digital activation: The Canadian Tire Puck Pass Challenge. Canadian Tire leveraged notable Canadian athletes and media personalities to encourage Canadians to “pass the puck” (words of inspiration and support) and share on their social channels.

With every “pass” made, Canadian Tire donated $1, up to $300,000 towards Jumpstart, the Canadian Olympic Foundation and the Paralympic Foundation of Canada. Some Canadians had their “pass” selected to be featured in the brand’s TV spots, which ran during the men’s and women’s ice hockey finals, with a final spot running during the Paralympic hockey finals.

It’s also supporting communities by investing in future Canadians. “We committed $200,000 to the Red Cross’ Ukraine Humanitarian Crisis Appeal and are working with the Federal government and settlement agencies to provide up to $500,000 to help support the thousands who will be seeking refuge in Canada,” notes Salem. “We also have ongoing programming with Jumpstart as we continue to provide the means to get our kids back into sport and keep them there.”

“We are focused on our new brand purpose of ‘making life in Canada better,’” she adds. “It’s really a celebration of shared Canadian values of community, inclusivity and sustainability – values that will help make life in Canada better for the next 100 years.”