Brand Envy: #Canada150
This week, it's our annual episode where we explore brands I admire. And in celebration of Canada's 150th birthday, this year's brands are all Canadian. We'll look at what may be the most successful global retailer Canada's ever built, a television pioneer worshipped and revered by generations of Canadians and a world-class brand that operates out of the smallest village in New Brunswick. We've certainly bred some amazing brands up here in the Great White North.
Happy birthday, Canada.
From the moment Bob and Doug McKenzie first appeared on SCTV, they were a huge hit.
Two hilarious hosers from the Great White North.
But what you may not know is why Bob and Doug McKenzie were on SCTV.
When the show was being aired on CBC, it was also being syndicated to the U.S. at the same time.
But the length of the CBC program slot was two minutes longer than the American SCTV version.
So, SCTV needed two minutes of additional material.
The CBC producers asked SCTV to come up with an idea – but with one stipulation:
The additional two minutes had to be identifiable Canadian content.
This struck Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis as a ridiculous request. The entire show was filmed in Canada, the performers were Canadian, the writers were Canadian and the crew was Canadian.
How much more Canada could there be??
So Thomas and Moranis decided to give them exactly what they asked for.
They created a two-minute segment that contained every single Canadian cliché they could think of.
You know the drill - they wore toques, earmuffs and plaid shirts. They drank beer, ate back bacon and enjoyed smokes. They sat in front of a giant map of Canada – labelled The Great White North:
Each segment had a topic. Which was usually beer, back bacon, long underwear and donuts.
Every Great White North bit began with that signature sound, which was a parody of the familiar flute in the Hinterland Who's Who nature vignettes that ran forever on CBC:
Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis would ad-lib Canadian clichés until they had enough material to fill two minutes.
The McKenzie Brothers didn't just make Canadians laugh. The Great White North segments were added to the syndicated U.S. shows, and Americans loved it.
Bob and Doug McKenzie became so popular that they recorded a comedy album, called, of course – The Great White North.
The record also contained a song called Take Off.
Rick Moranis had gone to public school with Geddy Lee from Rush, so he invited Geddy to sing on the track.
The song was co-written by Kerry Crawford, who was one of my partners at Pirate.
It climbed to #16 on the American Billboard charts.
Charting higher, by the way, than any Rush single ever has.
The Great White North album peaked at #8 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
It stayed at #1 in Canada for six straight weeks.
It won the Juno for Comedy Album of the Year and was nominated for a Grammy.
One million albums were sold in North America, with 350,000 of those sold in Canada, earning a triple platinum record – which still hangs proudly in Pirate's recording studios.
Next would come a major motion picture.
It was amazing what a little bit of Canadian content could lead do.
It's also interesting what a little bit of Canadian content can lead to in the world of marketing.
Welcome to the annual episode celebrating brands I admire. And because it's Canada's 150th birthday this year, today's brands are all Canadian.
I admire them because they're unique, because they've endured and because they've made a lasting impression on Canadians, and in some cases, the world.
The brands today have one thing in common:
They all took off…
There are many successful Canadian brands.
They do incredibly well in Canada.
And then there are some that do surprisingly well around the world.
The shoe company just may be the most successful global retailer Canada has ever built.
But few people actually know that…
Albert Bensadoun - also known as Aldo - began the Aldo chain in the early '70s.
But Bensadoun never intended to get into the shoe business.
With his grandfather working as a cobbler in Algeria, and his father a shoe retailer in Morocco, Aldo decided to take a different path.
The budding engineer studied in Paris and New York before a chance trip to Montreal left him enamoured with the city. He then transferred to McGill University to study business.
It was there that Bensadoun took a job at a plastics company that sold a shrink-wrap system to a shoe brand.
Before he knew it, he was pulled back into the shoe business.
From there, he managed a small footwear chain, then mortgaged his house to buy the shoe division of Le Chateâu – a Montreal-based fashion and accessories company.
In 1972, Aldo - the company - was born.
But Bensadoun doesn't credit his initial success to genetics. He credits it…to clogs.
One day he took a trip to Italy, where he noticed all the young people were wearing wooden clogs.
The trend gave him an idea. Bensadoun would bring the hippy heel back to Montreal.
He designed 60 pairs of clogs for the French-Canadian market. They sold out within days. Bensadoun would go on to sell 500,000 pairs.
That's when it hit him: fast fashion sells fast.
And there it was - the key to the success of Aldo Shoes.
The retailer brings products to market lightning fast by boasting the quickest turnaround time in the biz. While most companies take around 17 weeks to get a shoe on the shelf, Aldo can do it in under 12.
Head office receives hourly sales numbers rather than weekly, enabling them to make faster decisions.
Bensadoun is a strong believer that fashion starts on the street and mirrors the political and economic climate.
For example, in the early 2000s, his team introduced a combat-style boot using distressed leather in reaction to the war coverage they were seeing on the evening news every night. It was a huge success.
Trend-based fashion would become Aldo's differentiator in a trillion dollar industry.
But Aldo also marketed itself in unique ways.
When the brand was moving into the States, it made a splash by investing in "killer billboards" - the biggest, most-seen billboard in each major American city. It made Aldo appear bigger than it really was.
The company also promoted itself with strategic product placement in Hollywood. Movie and television credits would say "Shoes by Aldo" – which prompted people to ask, "Who IS this Aldo??"
It was smart marketing. By doing that, Aldo expanded the perception of his company long before it expanded the operations of his company.
This bold marketing and fast-fashion agility is why the shoe retailer has succeeded not only in the U.S. - where many other Canadian retailers have failed - but in Europe, the Middle East and Asia as well.
Today, Aldo Group is still family-owned, it umbrellas five very successful divisions, with 2,000 stores, 20,000 employees and over 2 million customers visiting each year.
Not many Canadian companies can say that.
But even a retailer as accomplished as Aldo still has a goal: To become the largest footwear brand in the world.
Among the competitors: Adidas and Nike.
They're big shoes to fill. But who knows that territory better than Aldo…
Recently, Aldo donated $25M to McGill University - one of the largest donations in the university's history. Learn more here.
Another brand I admire was started by someone who also emigrated to Montreal.
His name was Carlo Catelli, and he arrived from Lake Como, Italy, in 1845.
He began a career in Montreal as a sculptor, creating beautiful works of art that can still be found in churches throughout Montreal today.
But when Catelli turned 18, he decided to honour his Italian roots by starting a pasta business.
He opened Canada's first pasta plant in a little shop on Saint Paul Street in Old Montreal.
Over the years, Carlo Catelli became a prosperous and well-respected businessman, and played a founding role in the development of Montreal's Little Italy.
And the rest…is noodle history.
Today, the company has more than 75 products in its line-up.
But there's another reason Catelli made my list.
Even though it is now owned by a Spanish company, Catelli is still a Canadian success story, and it happens to share the same birthday as Canada.
Happy 150th, Catelli.
Another Canadian brand I admire is in the tool business.
Founded in 1978, Lee Valley Tools carved out a unique position for itself in a market filled with big box stores.
It chose to take a wholesome approach…to the tool industry.
Founder Leonard Lee came from humble beginnings in Wadena, Saskatchewan, where home was a small log cabin without electricity or running water.
A home his father had built with his own two hands… and a few tools.
Many years later, Lee made his way to Ottawa, where he worked as a civil servant.
In 1976, Lee and his wife Lorraine began a part-time mail-order business selling parts for cast-iron barrel stoves.
Sales did surprisingly well, giving Lee the confidence to quit his government post and take a crack at the full-time mail-order business at age 39.
He named the company Lee Valley Tools. Lee from his last name, Valley from the Ottawa Valley where he lived.
He and Lorraine cut and pasted together the first catalogue at their dining room table. It featured 950 items.
Next, they had to advertise.
With little to no budget, Lee placed an ad on the back of Harrowsmith magazine.
It said: "For our 78-page catalogue of fine woodworking tools, send one dollar to this address."
To their surprise, they received 2,200 one-dollar bills in the mail - an unbelievable response that jump-started the entire business.
When a postal strike in 1981 nearly sank the fledgling company, Lee opened up retail stores that didn't rely on the postal system.
Initially, the company only sold products manufactured elsewhere, but Lee wanted to make modifications. So eventually, Lee Valley Tools bought a machine shop in Ottawa to manufacture product in-house.
Today, the company sells hundreds of woodworking tools, gardening gadgets, kitchen equipment, hardware and clothing in stores that are uniquely designed.
The products, by the way, have brutally honest descriptions on the Lee Valley website.
One says: "Handle with hardwood scales complete with spots of wood filler."
Another says: "A tough, ugly tool that is perfect for the person whose usual solution is to use a large hammer."
But what makes Lee Valley Tools so unique isn't their tool selection.
It's their company culture.
Part of Leonard Lee's success came from his wholesome philosophy of insisting that no executive in his company would earn more than 10 times the wage of the lowest-paid worker.
An almost unheard-of ratio in the Canadian industry.
The company has also never laid off a single staff member – even through recessions and hard times.
Employees get 25% of pre-tax profits each year as a bonus - every staff member – from the top to the bottom - receives exactly the same amount.
Which is pretty amazing, considering Lee Valley Tools sells about $150 million dollars of product annually.
The staff is given the freedom to make decisions on the spot to solve a customer's needs.
No manual. No checking with the boss. No one is on commission.
The company wants the staff to feel empowered – a lesson Lee learned in government where everyone had enormous responsibility but no authority. Which led to ulcers.
Any Lee Valley Tools customer can return an item within 3 months of purchase at zero cost. The company will even refund shipping fees. It's a no-risk proposition.
Lee Valley Tools is a Canadian success story. Its 19 locations are still family-owned and family-run today, and it thrives in a tough category with big rivals.
Robin Lee has now taken over as president - maintaining the company's standards, values and transparency.
A few tools of the trade he learned…from Dad.
Which is a time honoured tradition a company in New Brunswick could also claim…
According to the most recent census, the town of Meductic, New Brunswick, has a population of 173 people.
It is one of the smallest villages in the province.
But it's home to one of the biggest suppliers to the music industry.
Founded by Bob Zildijian in 1981, his family has a long history of manufacturing cymbals.
A looong history. His ancestors created cymbals for the Ottoman army beginning in 1623.
The sultan was so enamoured with the cymbals, he bestowed the name Zildijian on the family - which literally meant "cymbal smith."
From there, the Zildijian family began their cymbal making foundry, passing the secrets of craftsmanship on from father to son for generations. At the turn of the 20th century, the Zildijian family took their knowledge across the ocean, and became the foremost cymbal brand in North America.
The company was being run by Avedis Zildijian, with help from his two sons, Armand and Bob. Both boys saw action in World War II. When Bob returned, he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A friend suggested he take some healing time in the quiet beauty of Meductic, New Brunswick.
Bob fell in love with the area.
Meanwhile, the company was flourishing, as the Zildijian cymbal brand was being embraced by musicians all over the world.
In 1964, a certain band that I'm forgetting the name of played on Ed Sullivan…
Demand for Zildijian cymbals exploded.
The company ended the year with 90,000 cymbals on backorder.
Times were good. The company had a factory in Massachusetts, and Bob would build a second one in his beloved village of Meductic in 1968.
Ten years later, patriarch Avedis Zildijian passed away. A power struggle ensued, and the Zildijian brothers had a falling out.
Bob Zildijian split from the company, took over the Meductic operation and started a rival cymbal business in 1981.
He was prevented from using the family name, and his lawyers recommended he stay away from using a Z, D or J in his new company name.
So he and his wife created an acronym using the first two letters from the first names of their children Sally, Billy and Andy.
Sa-b-ian Cymbals was born.
From that little village along the St. John River in New Brunswick, Sabian has become famous for creating some of the finest cymbals in the world.
The company manufactures hundreds of cymbal variations – for every genre of music – from classical to jazz to heavy metal.
It is an iconic brand. Known internationally. Loved by musicians everywhere. Its cymbals have been used by famous drummers from Carmine Appice to Phil Collins to Ringo Starr.
The company now commands 40% of the world's cymbal market, with distribution in 120 countries.
It's still a family business, run by Bob's son now, and it is the biggest employer in the beautiful village of Meductic, New Brunswick.
Sabian has become the symbol… of cymbals.
When I was studying radio & television arts at Ryerson in the late 70s, we had a lecture every Wednesday morning.
In that class, various people from the industry would come in and talk to us about their professions.
Documentary filmmakers. TV producers. When the advertising people came in, I saw my future.
But one day, our professor said he wasn't going to introduce that morning's guest. Which was very unusual. He said he would let us figure out who it was ourselves.
Then a middle-aged man in a suit with a briefcase walked into the classroom.
He just stood there and looked at us and we looked at him.
Then he put his briefcase on the desk and opened it.
He took off his tie and put it in the briefcase.
Then he took out a comb, and combed his parted hair straight down.
He was starting to look familiar.
Then he took out a recorder and played us this:
It was the Friendly Giant.
We couldn't believe it. We had all grown up with him. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
Bob Homme then told us the story of how he produced one of the most loved children's shows in Canadian television history.
Bob Homme began his broadcasting career doing a children's show on radio in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1953.
A few years later, he moved the show to television.
The program was decorated with miniature props. One day, Bob caught a glimpse of his seemingly giant hand rearranging the tiny furniture.
In that moment, the idea for the Friendly Giant was born.
In 1958, a CBC executive saw the show, loved it, and invited Bob to come up to Canada to do the show nationally.
The Friendly Giant aired every morning, Monday to Friday - and amazingly - the show was only 15 minutes long. Not many people realize that.
To me, when I was four, it was the best hour on television.
Bob chose 15 minutes because he felt it was just the right length for a young child's attention span.
When he moved the show to Canada, he needed to find an actor to voice Rusty the Rooster and Jerome the Giraffe:
He chose Rod Coneybeare. In later years, I did many commercials with Rod, because he was a remarkable voiceover artist.
And one day he told me the story of how he landed the job.
The first actor Bob Homme chose had a great voice but struggled to work both puppets at the same time. His arms couldn't stretch far enough to be a rooster and a giraffe.
Rod also had a great voice, but more importantly - he had a long wingspan.
He got the job.
Remarkably, Bob and Rod improvised every episode. And original music was written for virtually every show, too.
Over the years, the Friendly Giant introduced kids to a wide range of music, from jazz to Cole Porter to Elizabethan madrigals.
Rod Coneybeare has said that Bob Homme could have become a millionaire with Friendly Giant toys and merchandise. But Bob refused to commercialize his bond of trust with children, and never licensed his image.
At the core of the show was the insight that – to kids – all adults looked like giants. And Bob Homme showed them that adults could be kind and warm and share a sense of wonderment.
Over the 3,000 episodes – from 1958 to 1985 - that sentiment never changed. Nor did the show's trademark miniature set.
To me, the Friendly Giant checks all the boxes when it comes to a famous brand.
It was original. It was consistent. It influenced millions of Canadian kids. The mere mention of its name still makes people smile 30 years later. And my heart throbs every time I hear the theme song to this day.
We certainly did look up to you, Bob.
Every year, I do this episode to celebrate unique companies.
They've endured the test of time.
They've withstood the gale winds of the economy.
And the brands we've talked about today bloomed out of the permafrost of our great country.
I admire Aldo because it is that rare flower – a stunning international success in the fickle business of fashion.
I raise my fork to Catelli. A rare brand celebrating it's 150th Birthday with Canada this year.
I applaud Lee Valley Tools, which has survived and thrived even though it is surrounded on all sides by deep-pocketed box stores.
I tip my toque to Sabian Cymbals. A world-class player creating a world-class product – and they do it from the smallest village in New Brunswick.
Then there's the Friendly Giant. A television pioneer worshipped and revered by generations of Canadians. A true giant who refused to commercialize his trust with children.
It takes pluck and luck to build a good brand.
It takes fortitude and vision to build a great one.
We certainly have our fair share of them.
But what else do you expect from the Great White North…
…when you're under the influence.