Canada's Best Loved Brand: How Tim Hortons Won Canadian Hearts & Minds

Canada loves a cup of Tims, but will the US feel the same?

Branding

Few brands are as respected and genuinely appreciated by their consumers as Tim Hortons are by the Canadians public. The brand provides a fantastic example of how to connect with, and consistently build loyalty with customers, creating a beloved and valuable brand. What is it that makes Canada's favourite coffee chain so popular?

Burger King Worldwide Inc.’s $11.4 billion acquisition of Tim Hortons coffee-and-donut chain made headlines across the U.S. at the end of August.

The announcement, released to the press on the morning of August 26, was accompanied with plenty of positive noises from both sides. The acquisition would see Burger King gain the partnership of one of Canada’s most successful and best loved brands, and equally Tim Hortons would benefit from the fast-food giant’s global reach and international experience.

There are only a few places in the world where people haven’t heard of Burger King. Tim Hortons, on the other hand, have achieved huge levels of success, albeit almost solely within Canadian borders.

In an annual study by Canadian Business of Canada’s best loved brands, Tim Hortons ranked number one across a series of factors including reputation, products, innovation, workplace, citizenship , governance, leadership, and performance. One recent news article describes the brand as “genuinely beloved” by Canadians.

It’s a level of affection that would undoubtedly be the envy of other brands. But what makes Tim Hortons so loved among Canadians?

Authenticity & Social Responsibility

One endearing trait of the coffee chain is in the level of charity and community work that the company engages in. In a show of true Canadian goodwill, Tim Hortons runs a number of charitable foundations and campaigns (everything from children’s sports, environmental awareness, animal welfare, and aboriginal relations). Their efforts extend to grassroots local and community work, and particularly for a coffee chain, there is an authenticity to the brands philanthropic activities that exceeds the usual fair-trade reassurances.

In many ways, coffee chains operating today need to portray a sense of a home away from home, or a so-called Third Place. For customers, having an understanding that a company is ethical and empathetic to good causes makes a huge difference to their perception of the brand.

“In an age when consumers have countless brands to choose from and are bombarded with advertising they know is designed to manipulate their emotions and buying habits, corporate social responsibility is critical,” said Canadian-born Tessa Wegert, Communications Director of digital marketing agency Enlighten. “Studies show that some 90 percent of global consumers want companies to go above and beyond to ‘operate responsibly and address social and environmental issues’ and the failure to do so can have a lasting impact on the way consumers perceive brands.”

Customers can feel good about making a purchase at a Tim Hortons store, because they feel good about Tim Hortons as a brand, Wegert said. When a brand shows consumers it cares about more than just increasing its sales, customers are more likely to become regulars, advocates, and even lifelong fans.

“Tim Hortons does an excellent job of demonstrating its commitment to the local communities in which its customers live, and in the minds of consumers that gives the brand leave to operate in their towns and hold a place within their lives,” Wegert said.

Tim Hortons’ authentic qualities are considered extremely valuable to the brand, and not easily replicated. In an interview with CBC.ca, Carolyn Ray, Managing Director of Interbrand Canada, stated that “authenticity is about your heritage and your values and being true to who you are and I think Tim Hortons, certainly in the retail sector, scored among the highest in authenticity… all the things they do in the community and all the things they deliver from a customer service perspective are viewed by consumers as authentic.”

There are also signs that the company’s charitable nature has passed on to it’s customers. Last year there were a series of extremely generous “pay-it-forward” donations in Tim Hortons stores, including one from a retiring city bus supervisor who asked the cashier to ring in the next 500 large coffees.

Simple, Honest Marketing

“Tim Hortons is an honest brand. We don’t pretend to be something we’re not.”

Marc Caira, CEO, Tim Hortons

Tim Hortons wants to be “one of the industry’s most consumer-centric companies” and accomplish this by delighting “every consumer who comes in contact with our Brand by providing superior quality products/services and the ultimate in guest experience,” according to this presentation.

Many Canadian’s associate the Tim Horton’s brand as distinctly Canadian, and a sense of national pride is something that has run subtly through the company’s messaging in recent years. Their ‘Welcome Home’ TV spot is a classic example of how the brand have come to associate their brand with a sense of national identity.

A recent high profile campaign saw the company team up with NHL star Sidney Crosby. Founded by the hockey star who gave the company it’s name, Tim Hortons has always had a strong connection with the country’s national sport.

The ad ran with the simple, but highly effective tagline: “Nothing brings Canadian’s together like a good hockey game.” The beautiful simplicity of the message in how it unites memories of hockey and Tim Hortons coffee as two of Canada’s favorite traditions.

Writing for Canadian Business’ brand study, the Reputation Institute Rob Jekielek explains how “the chain’s power is increasingly ‘experiential.’ [Tim Hortons] sells memories as much as products — consumers remember how great it feels to sip Tims coffee at the skating rink.”

2014 has also been the 50th anniversary of the brand, which has done a great deal to reinforce the brand as part of the Canada’s modern heritage.

Digital Donuts & The Future

Of course, these are but a select aspect of the coffee-and-donut chains marketing activity. There are numerous examples of integrated marketing initiatives that keep the chain at the forefront of digital marketing, such as their digital donut competition which both engaged customers and united their online and social media marketing efforts.

Also worth mentioning is Tim Horton’s incredible cameo on hit TV show How I Met Your Mother. The brand caused quite a stir on social media, and they amplified this perfectly, going as far as to create a new themed ‘Priestly’ donut to feed the buzz.

However, it’s the long-serving consistency of the brand’s marketing messages that have really forged a sense of identity for them. It’s something that Burger King will be looking to leverage, but the U.S. fast-food giants will have to tread carefully on a brand that has established themselves as a part of Canadian culture.

“If Burger King hopes to ride Tim Hortons’ coattails into the hearts of Canadian consumers, it’s bound to be disappointed,” Wegert said. “Tim Hortons is deeply ingrained in the Canadian culture, and the company has spent many decades earning its national adoration. This isn’t something a brand can attain by association. But it will help Burger King to focus on community - the concept that’s long been at the heart of Tim Hortons’ marketing strategy.

“Between its local community programs and projects like everycup.ca, a site that shares Canadians’ stories about their interactions with the coffee chain and its place within their lives, Tim Hortons both leverages and extends the reach of consumers’ positive opinions of its brand,” Wegert continued. “This creates an authenticity and a sense of fraternity among its fans that few other brands enjoy, but that all brands should endeavor to achieve.”

Winning the hearts and minds of consumers is 'The Holy Grail' of most consumer facing brands. Do you know any other examples of brands that have really won the affection of their customers? Let us know in the comments below.

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