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Loblaws' French's ketchup snub sparks patriotic backlash

'Suddenly French's has become the Canadian brand of ketchup in everyone's minds'

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Some Canadians took to Twitter recently, vowing a boycott on buying Heinz ketchup after Loblaws announced it would stop selling competitor French's, which is made with Ontario-grown tomatoes. (CBC)

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Loblaws' fleeting decision to stop selling French's ketchup — made from Ontario tomatoes — brought out the patriotic side of Canadian consumers and forced the grocery giant to give the underdog brand a second chance. 

"In many ways, Loblaws dropping the French's ketchup line has been a huge boost to the brand awareness that French's even makes ketchup," said Tandy Thomas, a Queen's University business professor who specializes in how consumers connect socially with marketing.

"Suddenly French's has become the Canadian brand of ketchup in everyone's minds and that's elevated them to a level of awareness that they never had before."

Within 24 hours of announcing it would pull the condiment from shelves, public outcry prompted Loblaws to reverse course. 

Canadians took to social media in droves to pledge loyalty to the ketchup made from tomatoes farmed in Leamington, Ont., a town once known for its Heinz factory before that company pulled up stakes two years ago. 

In justifying its initial decision to pull the product, Loblaws cited weak sales for French's, which has struggled to penetrate a ketchup market long dominated by Heinz. 

'The gold standard for ketchup'

"When people really think of ketchup, they think of Heinz. Because there is this iconic image behind it, it makes it very difficult for somebody else to come in and be viewed as something that is an equal competitor," Thomas said. 

"Someone might come in as a lower-priced competitor and people might choose it based on the price, but they still view it as being inferior to Heinz, which is the gold standard for ketchup."

But that could change as Canadians claim sides in the ketchup wars. 

French's has been held up as a saviour in Leamington since announcing in January that it would make all its ketchup from tomatoes farmed in the community, which was plunged into economic turmoil after Heinz shuttered its 106-year-old factory in 2014

"It's a national pride kind of thing," Brian Fernandez, of Orillia, Ont., told CBC News.

His Facebook post singing the praises of the then-little-known product went viral earlier this year, helping to put the brand on the map.

"Canadians are known as passive," he said. "But I think that's changing."

NDP MPP Taras Natyshak, whose riding includes Leamington, recently won a successful campaign to have French's ketchup served exclusively in the provincial legislature's cafeteria. 

Natyshak called Loblaws' initial decision "a dumb move" and predicted Canadians would turn to independent grocers who "understand the importance of supporting local food."

"Leamington is the tomato capital of Canada. Ketchup is the iconic product made from those tomatoes. It's synonymous with Leamington and it was immortalized in a Stompin' Tom Connors song. It is quintessential Canadiana," said Natyshak. 

"So when Heinz pulled out and took their bottling line with them, it devastated that town and really had them questioning their identity, their history and their future."

Food-processing company Highbury Canco took over the plant shortly after Heinz left and it still packs dozens of products under the Heinz label, but ketchup isn't one of them. That left Leamington farmers with fewer places to peddle their ripe, juicy wares — until French's came along and started buying tomato paste from Highbury Canco. 

A facility in Toronto manufactures the company's food services ketchup — the stuff that ends up in restaurants — while a plant in Ohio makes the stuff that ends up on grocery store shelves. But both plants use Leamington tomatoes.

"It revitalized Leamington and made them secure in their future. And I think that's why that story resonates with communities all across Ontario, whether you've lost a food-processing plant, or a textile plant, or any type of business to other jurisdictions," Natyshak said. 

Tomato Harvest

Tomatoes are harvested in Leamington, Ont., in this file photo. French's sources the tomatoes that go into its ketchup from the southern Ontario community. (CBC)

It's an underdog story that plays well in the public eye, said Thomas. 

"You're tying it into a sense of community — a community that Heinz abandoned — and this idea of being local, supporting the people and supporting Canadians," Thomas said. 

Patriotic marketing has a successful history in Canada, Thomas said, point to Molson's famous "I am Canadian" campaign or pretty much any Tim Hortons ad. 

"Canadians are extremely patriotic and we respond very well to brands that tap into what it means to be Canadian in the sense of our values, having a strong community, being inclusive, being accepting, being sort of the little guy, not giving into bullies," Thomas said. 

"We are certainly a people that are very loyal to brands that are loyal to us."

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