Rebranding: Justin Trudeau and Canadian Coffee

For millions of Canadians, there is no icon in business more collectively beloved than Tim Hortons. “Tim’s” – as the franchise is affectionately called – long ago transcended the humble domain of doughnuts and coffee. Instead, it is now a part of the Canadian national identity – one of those rare brands by which individuals and societies categorize themselves.

Forget beer. Tim Hortons coffee is Canada’s drug of choice.

beer

And it is a fascinating historical and political development that Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party cleverly latched onto this when pitching itself to the masses. The Tories held photo-ops inside Tim Hortons outlets across Canada and made sure to be photographed delivering Tim Hortons goodies around various communities.

In 2009, one researcher felt that the Tim Hortons X factor was essential enough to warrant asking voters which party leader was more likely to buy their coffee at Tim’s. No surprises here, the Conservatives edged the Liberals in this category. Canadians had, in short, developed a culture of conservative coffee.

With the recent election of Justin Trudeau and a new Liberal government (which promised hope and change), the time is right to take a step back and assess the relationship between Tim Hortons and politics.

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Trudeau family at Halloween. May the 4th be with you.

* * * * *

Tim Hortons opened its first location in 1964 in Hamilton, Ontario. It was co-founded by NHL player, Tim Horton, who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, among other teams. In succeeding decades, thousands more popped up across the country, making it more successful in Canada than McDonald’s. Sure, the arrival of the coffee chain in a small town sometimes meant the end of local ‘mom-and-pop’ shops, but its presence produced more excitement than resentment. Getting a Tim Hortons was a sign that a community – however small – had made it.

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Tim handles the puck

Over the course of 50 years, Tim Hortons caught and surpassed the big-name American burger chains to become the undisputed champion of Canada’s “quick service restaurant” market.

By 2004, the term “double-double” entered the Oxford dictionary of Canadian English, signifying recognition of its importance to everyday speech. Ordering a drink of this kind represented, at least for some commentators and scholars, more than just habit. It was and remains an act of solidarity within the national body politic. According to the Globe and Mail, one estimate suggests Tim’s sells nearly eight in 10 cups of coffee sold in Canada.

double doublealways fresh

Most pharmaceutical companies would kill for that kind of market share.

This road to dominance was chronicled in Ron Joyce’s Always Fresh, an insider’s account of Tim Horton and the business named after him.  At times, it is a devastatingly blunt account of the chaotic and complicated personal story behind one of Canada’s most successful businesses.

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Ron Joyce, one of the co-founders of the franchise, chronicles the drugs, the infidelity, an epic court battle, and one spectacular, fatal car crash – that of Tim Horton himself, which was booze-fuelled and largely overlooked until recently.  Joyce, in short, takes his readers behind the counter, into the kitchen, and demonstrates the inner-workings of the company.

The tone of tenor of the book are inherently and recognizably free-market. It is a Horatio Alger, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, local-boy-makes-good narrative. First, Joyce settled in Hamilton and worked menial jobs in factories, scraping together enough to get by. Later, he joined law enforcement and increased his measly pay by taking on a variety of odd jobs, including: a produce truck driver, construction worker, and then Brinks guard. Finally, he simply fell into the restaurant business in his mid-thirties and then, through sheer hard work and force of will, he went on to become one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country.

We have all been exposed to this upwardly mobile narrative before, and it surely one that resonates with free-market advocates and, more generally, economic conservatives. Yet, Joyce’s story is intriguing because it showcases how success can tear at the fabric of friendship and family. According to Maclean’s, “It’s as much about jealousy, greed and betrayal as it is about cash flow and marketing.”

According to Douglas Hunter, politicians, especially the Conservative Party, saw tremendous value in the legend of Tim Hortons and seized on the idea that the company, as well as the hockey player founder, was representative of the average Canadian.

When Condoleezza Rice visited Canada in 2006, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay was photographed taking her to Tim’s. Newspapers referred to this as “double-double diplomacy,” even though she chose to have her coffee black with one sweetener, rather than two creams and two sugars.

Prime Minister Harper also used the Tim Hortons logo as a political stage, including a 2009 speech that welcomed the company back to Canada after it relocated its corporate headquarters from the U.S. To make this political statement, Harper declined an invitation to speak at the United Nations General Assembly, much to the chagrin of the national press.

Harper explicitly referenced how the company was an “essential Canadian story,” which included “success and tragedy,” as well as “big dreams in small towns,” “old fashioned values and tough-fisted business,” “hard work and hockey.” To use David Farber’s phrase, this muscular nationalism, an unshakable patriotism that was popularized by Harper.

Similarly, as Canada prepared to go to war in Afghanistan, the Canadian Chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, contended that troops should have a Tim Hortons at Kandahar Airfield. It would cost the public at least $4 million, but access to Canada’s drug of choice was a boon to morale. “There’s nothing more Canadian than sipping a double-double in Kandahar airfield while you’re watching a hockey game,” noted Gen. Hillier.

According to Hillier’s Afghanistan commander, Brigadier-General David Fraser, when asked what he thought about the idea: “Tim Hortons better get its ass over here, as far as I’m concerned.”

* * * *

The identity crisis Canadians have suffered since Confederation in 1867 has helped Tim Hortons achieve its emblematic status. It doesn’t help that Canadians are so close to the United States and struggle with what makes us distinct.

Essentially, this means we have been desperate to clasp on to everything that helps delineate and comfort us, particularly in a post-1980s globalized world in which national culture has become so tangled with acts of consumption.

Tim Hortons has seized on that and the Conservative Party seized on that, too. “The worst thing a company can do is tell you straight up ‘We are important to your identity,’” says Douglas Hunter. Instead, the politicians made that point. Tim’s was used as a prop and a backdrop. And the coffee formed part of a political strategy, which has helped reinforce the iron grip of a gentle brand.

And while Justin Trudeau, Canada’s new prime minister, promised hope and change on the campaign trail he made sure to stop in to Tim’s for a cup of coffee. Some drugs, it seems, are hard to kick.

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