Tim Hortons, Enbridge and the pitfalls of cross-promotion

The home of the double double is getting a cruel lesson in customer devotion after airing Enbridge ads on its in-store TV channel — and then hastily withdrawing them.

Coffee chain pulled ads after public outcry, which led to a different public outcry

Tim Hortons is learning a lesson in customer devotion after running, then dropping, ads for Enbridge on its internal TV network.

Tim Hortons, arguably one of Canada's most beloved brands, is feeling a little jilted right now.

The home of the double double is getting a cruel lesson in customer devotion after airing Enbridge ads on its in-store TV channel in about 1,500 Tim Hortons outlets across Canada — and then hastily withdrawing them.

Outrage over both the original ads and their subsequent removal has lit up social media, and marketing analysts say it demonstrates some of the problems that can crop up in this new age of cross-promotion.

Tim Hortons is "a temple of the middle class, where people go for comfort," says Gurprit Kindra, a professor at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.

And in the minds of some Tim Hortons customers, he says the Enbridge ads "desecrated the temple."

Eric Erickson, CEO of Calgary-based advertising and marketing firm Erickson Group, says the coffee-and-doughnuts chain was ill-advised to get into this kind of corporate partnership.

"Timmy's was probably best suited to not dive into that pool in the first place," he says.

'Trusted brand'

The commercials in question feature a cross-section of average-looking Canadians and extol the role of the oil and gas industry in powering homes and businesses and otherwise improving our daily lives.

'I am pretty sure Tims will correct their mistake quickly, but I don't think it's appropriate what they have done," says Brian Jean, leader of Alberta's Wildrose Party, referring to the company pulling Enbridge ads from its in-store TV ads. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

The commercials had been running on Tims TV, the restaurant's internal video network, for several weeks. But the company pulled the ads in response to an online petition from a group called SumOfUs, which accused the chain of "shilling" for energy industry.

"Enbridge was using the trusted brand of Tim Hortons to sell a skeptical public on a project," said Emma Pullman, a Vancouverite who was part of the SumOfUs campaign.

The chain's decision, in turn, has enraged another contingent of the Tim Hortons faithful, who say it demonizes an industry that produces not only energy but thousands of jobs.

Defence Minister Jason Kenney is among those who have publicly expressed their disappointment with Tim's, while broadcaster Ezra Levant organized a protest and launched a social media campaign with the hashtags #BoycottTims and #NotTims.

Wildrose Party Leader Brian Jean, another critic, said, "I'll pick up my Tims coffee again when they decide to apologize for taking jabs at our industry, which is so important to Albertans."

Tim Hortons did not respond to CBC's request for an interview.

Touchy issue

Visually, the Enbridge commercials, like recent Tim Hortons ads, try to strike a chord of empathy for average, hard-working Canadians, says Allison Johnson, a director at the Behavioural Research Lab at the Ivey Business School in London, Ont. She notes that the ads even feature someone sipping coffee.

But because of the heated discourse between those who believe the Alberta oilsands are an ethical, job-creating industry and those who believe they're environmentally irresponsible, she says Tim Hortons should have steered clear of giving Enbridge ad space.

Johnson says that just because two companies are not in direct competition doesn't mean that their brands won't clash in the minds of some customers.

"The associations outside of the companies and outside of their literal products have to be taken into account" when considering this sort of a partnership, says Johnson.

Lesson for other chains

The idea of restaurants and retailers hosting in-store TV networks to run ads for other products is fairly new, says Kindra. McDonald's, KFC and Walmart have offered the service to varying degrees in locations in the U.S. and Europe.

Tim Hortons launched Tims TV in 2013, and Kindra said it reflects the falling costs of video screens and rising interest in new revenue streams.

"Their restaurants are margin squeezed and it's a great opportunity to generate additional revenues," says Kindra.

For the most part, Tim's uses its video network as a platform for promotions such as Roll Up the Rim and to publicize community initiatives Camp Day, and that makes sense to customers, says Erickson.

But once a retailer or restaurant starts running commercials for other companies, he says it has to manage the expectations of its customers, who may find those ads either jarring or inappropriate.

Because it's potentially lucrative, a lot of companies have been looking into offering this kind of advertising service. But Tim Hortons may have inadvertently provided a textbook case for how not to do it.

"I see this as one of those everyone-can-learn-from-their-mistake kind of things," says Erickson.


  • An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified the leader of the Wildrose Party as Michael Jean. In fact, the party leader is Brian Jean.
    Jun 06, 2015 10:13 AM ET


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?