Canada 150 marketing campaigns a balancing act between tasteful and tacky

As Canada celebrates 150 years since Confederation, It seems every brand in the country is trying to grab a piece of history with a Canada 150-themed marketing campaign. But such campaigns can be risky, marketing experts say.

Brands pull out all the stops to connect with Canadians on the country's big anniversary

Kentucky Fried Chicken temporarily rebranded its Canadian operations as "K'ehFC" for its Canada 150-themed marketing campaign. (Provided/K'ehFC)

Boston Pizza has reimagined itself as "Canada Pizza." Kentucky Fried Chicken has temporarily rebranded as "K'ehFC." Ontario credit union Meridian is even offering a 15-month fixed mortgage at a celebratory 1.50 per cent rate.

As Canada celebrates the sesquicentennial of Confederation, it seems every brand in the country is trying to grab a piece of history with a Canada 150-themed marketing campaign.

There's "a mood, there's a climate in Canada right now, that makes this a really great cultural moment," said Mary Chambers, chief strategy officer at advertising agency McCann.

"And so, in a sense, what brand would not want to be able to associate with such positive Canadian momentum?"

But such campaigns can also be risky, marketing experts say, with the potential for consumer backlash against any message deemed inauthentic, exploitative, or just plain tacky.

A timely opportunity for marketers

​This Canada Day is a clear opportunity for what branding expert Ron Tite calls "just-in-time" marketing.

"In order to try and capture the attention of Canadians, it's easier for a brand to start a conversation with something they're already talking about," he explained.

But Tite cautioned marketers against simply hawking their wares in Canada 150 campaigns.

"You have to put purpose before product and profit," he said. "So if you genuinely want to wish the country happy 150th, then do that, and don't worry about what the promotional message is."

The "Be Nice" campaign from Canadian fashion brand Roots hit the mark, said Tite, because it linked the concept of niceness to Canadian identity without overtly mentioning Roots clothing.

Tite also praised the "Eat Together" campaign from Loblaw Companies' President's Choice brand, which encouraged Canadians of all different backgrounds to join each other for meals.

"It spoke to all the values of the country, it spoke to the diversity that we have here," said Tite.

In contrast, Tite disliked Kentucky Fried Chicken's "K'ehFC" rebranding, and said it "put KFC forward, not Canada."

But KFC's accompanying Canada Day video, produced by viral video outfit Brittlestar, brought back positive memories of Molson's famous "I Am Canadian" advertisement for Scott Stratton, president of Unmarketing.

Stratton says it's "upsetting" that a non-Canadian company has such an effective ad. 

"That should have been one of ours doing it, because that was smart," he said.

The Canada 150 marketing campaign from Ontario credit union Meridian includes a 15-month mortgage at 1.50 per cent. (

But big national events like Canada 150 have the potential to "bring out the worst in marketers," Stratton said, sometimes leading to over-the-top jingoism that doesn't fit with his notion of what being Canadian is all about.

"When you scream you're Canadian, you're actually not Canadian. That's half of our identity, is not being ridiculous about being Canadian."

Stratton said brands with long histories in Canada have the best opportunities to associate themselves with positive emotions surrounding Canada's sesquicentennial anniversary.

"I want to see something at Roots for the anniversary, I want to see something at Tim Hortons, even though it's not a Canadian-owned company anymore," said Stratton.

"I want to see a Molson Canadian special bottle, because they've paid their dues. I want to see Hudson's Bay Company do something for it, because they were open 150 years ago."

Risk of consumer backlash

If a brand's Canada 150 campaign is perceived as inauthentic, "then they will be ridiculed online, and there's a potential for consumer backlash," said Ela Veresiu, an assistant professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University.

"And the backlash hits faster and harder, thanks to social media."
Boston Pizza has changed its named to 'Canada Pizza' for Canada Day this year. (Solomon Israel/CBC News)

Veresiu cited Tim Hortons' poutine doughnut — which is only being sold at the company's U.S. restaurants — as an example of a Canada 150 promotion that suffered significant social media ridicule, describing the gravy-and-cheese-smothered snack as "gawky, gimmicky, and silly overall."

Veresiu also singled out discount retailer Dollarama for selling knock-off dreamcatchers among its Canada 150 merchandise.

"These are perceived as largely disrespectful, especially of a sacred object for First Nations, and dismissive of the fact that Canada Day is a sticking point with First Nations, and may not be perceived as a celebration by communities."

Appearing opportunistic poses "the biggest risk" to brands trying to market themselves with Canada 150, said McCann's Mary Chambers.

"Consumers today see that in a heartbeat, and they see the lack of sincerity, and they'll reject you for it as hard as they'll embrace you for it," she said.