Tim Hortons: Why the coffee giant is 'genuinely beloved' by Canadians

The richest best-dressed company director and the poorest worst-dressed unemployed worker — both can be seen holding a cup of Tim Hortons coffee in their hand and neither feels awkward. This helps to explain the enduring love affair that Canadians have with the coffee and doughnut giant.

Tim Hortons is 'every man and every woman and that’s its power,' says marketing professor

While it's the biggest coffee chain in Canada, with more than 3,600 stores across the country, Tim Hortons consistently ranks high in brand studies. Qualitative and quantitative research shows that Canadians believe the company is reflective of Canada. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Picture the richest best-dressed company director and the poorest worst-dressed unemployed worker — both could be seen holding a cup of Tim Hortons coffee in their hand and neither would feel awkward. 

"Could you do that with Starbucks? Could you do that with other brands? Tim's is every man and every woman, and that’s its power," said Alan Middleton, a York University assistant marketing professor.

That observation, which Middleton says was originally made by cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, helps to explain the enduring love affair that Canadians have with the coffee and doughnut giant.

And it's a love affair that's provably true, says Middleton, who specializes in domestic and international branding and is the executive director of the Schulich Executive Education Centre.

"It's genuinely beloved," Middleton said. 

To allay any fears Canadians may have over the announcement of the merger with Burger King, Tim Hortons took out a two-page newspaper ad on Wednesday promising that a Tim Hortons coffee before and after the deal will remain the same. 

What the ad didn't point out is that Tims has been owned by American-based interests before. Wendy's International bought the chain in 1995 and hung on to it until 2006 when it was spun off as a separate public company. But analysts say Tim's ownership hasn't seemed to matter to Canadians and hasn't affected the chain's Canadian identity.   

While it's the biggest coffee chain in Canada, with more than 3,600 stores across the country, Tim Hortons consistently ranks high in brand studies, he says, and qualitative and quantitative research shows that Canadians believe the company is reflective of Canada.

Its community work, sponsoring local sporting clubs has earned it a number of sponsorship awards, while its work in student programs and the Tim Horton Children's Foundation have engendered an enormous amount of goodwill.

Interbrand Canada, a leading brand consultancy firm, annually ranks the best Canadian brands based on financial analysis, the role of the brand in consumer purchasing decisions and brand strength. This year, Tim Hortons came in fifth but it was the highest ranking retail brand in their top 25, which Interbrand Canada managing director Carolyn Ray attributes in large part to Tim Hortons' ''authenticity."

Among the highest in 'authenticity'

"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," Ray said. "Which means 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."

Authenticity, or being relatable to consumers, is different than Canadians having some kind of strong patriotic attachment to the brand. Middleton dismissed the notion that Canadian ties to the company, founded by Toronto Maple Leaf hockey player Tim Horton, come from any profound sense of nationalism. There are certainly tinges of pride, but it's not overt.

"We don't do well in responses to nationalism," he said.

The Molson Canadian beer "I am Canadian" rant commercial, in which average Canadian Joe talks about why it's great to be Canadian, is a perfect example, he said.

Author Douglas Hunter believes Tim Hortons became a Canadian cultural phenenomenon in part because of the CBC's Royal Canadian Air Farce doughnut shop sketches.

"The individual commercial was huge but when they tried to turn it from the Molson Canadian brand to an ongoing campaign, it failed," he said. "We don’t buy based on nationalism. We buy based on ‘this company kinda gets us.’"

Middleton credits Tim Hortons' success on a combination of its strong roots in communities, its ability to cater to consumer wants while introducing new products and its marketing and advertising strategy.

While some of Tim Horton's tearjerker "True Stories" commercials may resonate with Canadians and are important, most of the company's advertising goes toward highlighting the products they offer, Middleton said.

Have a 'value' proposition

"They constantly communicate what the product's good for, what the beverage is good for and that it's good value. So they have a value proposition," Middleton said. 

Douglas Hunter, author of Double Double: How Tim Hortons Became a Canadian Way of Life, One Cup at a Time, said Tim Hortons has been very shrewd about not building up their own self importance.

"They've done good marketing around people telling their own stories. They've let people tell their own stories. It's always dangerous for a company to tell you 'I'm really important to you and your identity.'"

Former Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak was among a number of politicians who made regular campaign stops at Tim Hortons. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Hunter believes Tim Hortons became a Canadian cultural phenomenon in part because of the CBC's Royal Canadian Air Farce doughnut shop sketches, which featured characters sitting around a table at a coffee shop, riffing on the events of the day. Although the sketches never specifically referred to Tim Hortons, the coffee chain was the major player in Canada at the time.

"If you were thinking of a coffee doughnuts store, you really were thinking about Tim Hortons," he said. "And I think it did come out of that doughnut gang idea. We really started to equate this idea that ordinary, mushy, middle-class, middle-spectrum political values Canadians go to Tim Hortons and meet and talk about the day."

From that perception grew a new political reality, said Hunter, where Tim Hortons was the place where you met "ordinary Canadians" and was the only place that politicians could be seen meeting Canadians.

"Have we jumped the shark on that yet? I don't know. I kind of thought that we had. Even in 2012, when I was [touring] the book, I was still seeing media shorthand of  'the Tim Hortons voters.' I thought 'why do we keep talking about the Tim Hortons' voter?' I think people just go to Tim Hortons."

The "Tim Hortons" voter may just be part of the Canadian lexicon, much like "double double" and "roll up the rim" have all become familiar phrases.

"It’s the difference between calling it Tim Hortons and Tim's," said Middleton, the marketing professor. "Brands would die for that crossover affection."


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