Canada’s Best Loved Brand: How Tim Hortons Won Canadian Hearts & Minds

Cana­da loves a cup of Tims, but will the US feel the same?

Pat Hong By Pat Hong from Linkdex. Join the discussion » 0 comments

Few brands are as respect­ed and gen­uine­ly appre­ci­at­ed by their con­sumers as Tim Hor­tons are by the Cana­di­ans pub­lic. The brand pro­vides a fan­tas­tic exam­ple of how to con­nect with, and con­sis­tent­ly build loy­al­ty with cus­tomers, cre­at­ing a beloved and valu­able brand. What is it that makes Canada’s favourite cof­fee chain so pop­u­lar?

Burg­er King World­wide Inc.‘s $11.4 bil­lion acqui­si­tion of Tim Hor­tons cof­fee-and-donut chain made head­lines across the U.S. at the end of August.

The announce­ment, released to the press on the morn­ing of August 26, was accom­pa­nied with plen­ty of pos­i­tive nois­es from both sides. The acqui­si­tion would see Burg­er King gain the part­ner­ship of one of Canada’s most suc­cess­ful and best loved brands, and equal­ly Tim Hor­tons would ben­e­fit from the fast-food giant’s glob­al reach and inter­na­tion­al expe­ri­ence.

There are only a few places in the world where peo­ple haven’t heard of Burg­er King. Tim Hor­tons, on the oth­er hand, have achieved huge lev­els of suc­cess, albeit almost sole­ly with­in Cana­di­an bor­ders.

In an annu­al study by Cana­di­an Busi­ness of Canada’s best loved brands, Tim Hor­tons ranked num­ber one across a series of fac­tors includ­ing rep­u­ta­tion, prod­ucts, inno­va­tion, work­place, cit­i­zen­ship , gov­er­nance, lead­er­ship, and per­for­mance. One recent news arti­cle describes the brand as “gen­uine­ly beloved” by Cana­di­ans.

It’s a lev­el of affec­tion that would undoubt­ed­ly be the envy of oth­er brands. But what makes Tim Hor­tons so loved among Cana­di­ans?

Authenticity & Social Responsibility

One endear­ing trait of the cof­fee chain is in the lev­el of char­i­ty and com­mu­ni­ty work that the com­pa­ny engages in. In a show of true Cana­di­an good­will, Tim Hor­tons runs a num­ber of char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tions and cam­paigns (every­thing from children’s sports, envi­ron­men­tal aware­ness, ani­mal wel­fare, and abo­rig­i­nal rela­tions). Their efforts extend to grass­roots local and com­mu­ni­ty work, and par­tic­u­lar­ly for a cof­fee chain, there is an authen­tic­i­ty to the brands phil­an­thropic activ­i­ties that exceeds the usu­al fair-trade reas­sur­ances.

In many ways, cof­fee chains oper­at­ing today need to por­tray a sense of a home away from home, or a so-called Third Place. For cus­tomers, hav­ing an under­stand­ing that a com­pa­ny is eth­i­cal and empa­thet­ic to good caus­es makes a huge dif­fer­ence to their per­cep­tion of the brand.

In an age when con­sumers have count­less brands to choose from and are bom­bard­ed with adver­tis­ing they know is designed to manip­u­late their emo­tions and buy­ing habits, cor­po­rate social respon­si­bil­i­ty is crit­i­cal,” said Cana­di­an-born Tes­sa Wegert, Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Direc­tor of dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing agency Enlight­en. “Stud­ies show that some 90 per­cent of glob­al con­sumers want com­pa­nies to go above and beyond to ‘oper­ate respon­si­bly and address social and envi­ron­men­tal issues’ and the fail­ure to do so can have a last­ing impact on the way con­sumers per­ceive brands.”

Cus­tomers can feel good about mak­ing a pur­chase at a Tim Hor­tons store, because they feel good about Tim Hor­tons as a brand, Wegert said. When a brand shows con­sumers it cares about more than just increas­ing its sales, cus­tomers are more like­ly to become reg­u­lars, advo­cates, and even life­long fans.

Tim Hor­tons does an excel­lent job of demon­strat­ing its com­mit­ment to the local com­mu­ni­ties in which its cus­tomers live, and in the minds of con­sumers that gives the brand leave to oper­ate in their towns and hold a place with­in their lives,” Wegert said.

Tim Hor­tons’ authen­tic qual­i­ties are con­sid­ered extreme­ly valu­able to the brand, and not eas­i­ly repli­cat­ed. In an inter­view with, Car­olyn Ray, Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Inter­brand Cana­da, stat­ed that “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… 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.”

There are also signs that the com­pa­ny’s char­i­ta­ble nature has passed on to it’s cus­tomers. Last year there were a series of extreme­ly gen­er­ous “pay-it-for­ward” dona­tions in Tim Hor­tons stores, includ­ing one from a retir­ing city bus super­vi­sor who asked the cashier to ring in the next 500 large cof­fees.

Simple, Honest Marketing

Tim Hor­tons is an hon­est brand. We don’t pre­tend to be some­thing we’re not.”

Marc Caira, CEO, Tim Hor­tons

Tim Hor­tons wants to be “one of the industry’s most con­sumer-cen­tric com­pa­nies” and accom­plish this by delight­ing “every con­sumer who comes in con­tact with our Brand by pro­vid­ing supe­ri­or qual­i­ty products/services and the ulti­mate in guest expe­ri­ence,” accord­ing to this pre­sen­ta­tion.

Many Cana­di­an’s asso­ciate the Tim Hor­ton’s brand as dis­tinct­ly Cana­di­an, and a sense of nation­al pride is some­thing that has run sub­tly through the com­pa­ny’s mes­sag­ing in recent years. Their ‘Wel­come Home’ TV spot is a clas­sic exam­ple of how the brand have come to asso­ciate their brand with a sense of nation­al iden­ti­ty.

A recent high pro­file cam­paign saw the com­pa­ny team up with NHL star Sid­ney Cros­by. Found­ed by the hock­ey star who gave the com­pa­ny it’s name, Tim Hor­tons has always had a strong con­nec­tion with the coun­try’s nation­al sport.

The ad ran with the sim­ple, but high­ly effec­tive tagline: “Noth­ing brings Cana­di­an’s togeth­er like a good hock­ey game.” The beau­ti­ful sim­plic­i­ty of the mes­sage in how it unites mem­o­ries of hock­ey and Tim Hor­tons cof­fee as two of Canada’s favorite tra­di­tions.

Writ­ing for Cana­di­an Busi­ness’ brand study, the Rep­u­ta­tion Insti­tute Rob Jekielek explains how “the chain’s pow­er is increas­ing­ly ‘expe­ri­en­tial.’ [Tim Hor­tons] sells mem­o­ries as much as prod­ucts — con­sumers remem­ber how great it feels to sip Tims cof­fee at the skat­ing rink.”

2014 has also been the 50th anniver­sary of the brand, which has done a great deal to rein­force the brand as part of the Canada’s mod­ern her­itage.

Digital Donuts & The Future

Of course, these are but a select aspect of the cof­fee-and-donut chains mar­ket­ing activ­i­ty. There are numer­ous exam­ples of inte­grat­ed mar­ket­ing ini­tia­tives that keep the chain at the fore­front of dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing, such as their dig­i­tal donut com­pe­ti­tion which both engaged cus­tomers and unit­ed their online and social media mar­ket­ing efforts.

Also worth men­tion­ing is Tim Hor­ton’s incred­i­ble cameo on hit TV show How I Met Your Moth­er. The brand caused quite a stir on social media, and they ampli­fied this per­fect­ly, going as far as to cre­ate a new themed ‘Priest­ly’ donut to feed the buzz.


How­ev­er, it’s the long-serv­ing con­sis­ten­cy of the brand’s mar­ket­ing mes­sages that have real­ly forged a sense of iden­ti­ty for them. It’s some­thing that Burg­er King will be look­ing to lever­age, but the U.S. fast-food giants will have to tread care­ful­ly on a brand that has estab­lished them­selves as a part of Cana­di­an cul­ture.

If Burg­er King hopes to ride Tim Hor­tons’ coat­tails into the hearts of Cana­di­an con­sumers, it’s bound to be dis­ap­point­ed,” Wegert said. “Tim Hor­tons is deeply ingrained in the Cana­di­an cul­ture, and the com­pa­ny has spent many decades earn­ing its nation­al ado­ra­tion. This isn’t some­thing a brand can attain by asso­ci­a­tion. But it will help Burg­er King to focus on com­mu­ni­ty — the con­cept that’s long been at the heart of Tim Hor­tons’ mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy.

Between its local com­mu­ni­ty pro­grams and projects like, a site that shares Cana­di­ans’ sto­ries about their inter­ac­tions with the cof­fee chain and its place with­in their lives, Tim Hor­tons both lever­ages and extends the reach of con­sumers’ pos­i­tive opin­ions of its brand,” Wegert con­tin­ued. “This cre­ates an authen­tic­i­ty and a sense of fra­ter­ni­ty among its fans that few oth­er brands enjoy, but that all brands should endeav­or to achieve.”

Win­ning the hearts and minds of con­sumers is ‘The Holy Grail’ of most con­sumer fac­ing brands. Do you know any oth­er exam­ples of brands that have real­ly won the affec­tion of their cus­tomers? Let us know in the com­ments below.

Pat Hong

Written by Pat Hong

Editor at Linkdex/Inked, Linkdex

Pat covers the SEO industry, digital marketing trends, and anything and everything around Linkdex. He also authors Linkdex's data analysis and reports, analysing the state of search in various industries.

Inked is published by Linkdex, the SEO platform of choice for professional marketers.

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