20/20 magazine (Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters) – May/June 2008

Maple Leaf Branding

John Schofield talks to industry leaders about the need to strengthen the Canadian brand around the world

By John Schofield

It was the beer commercial that inspired a nation. Launched in 2000, the award-winning “I am Canadian” campaign for Molson’s prompted a massive outpouring of national pride in viewers from sea to sea. Featuring an impassioned soliloquy on a stage by an average Canuck clad in blue jeans and a checked shirt, the 60-second ad imprinted itself on the Canadian consciousness with classic lines, “Canada is the second largest land mass, the first nation of hockey, and the best part of North America!”
For Brett Marchand, then vice-president of marketing for Molson’s and leader of the team that developed the ad, the sentiments were partly personal. He had just returned from five years in the States, and was still flushed with pride at Canada’s refreshing differences. The concept was somewhat fanciful, too. After all, what kind of Canadian would have the audacity to get on a stage and shout about his country? But Marchand, now an executive vice-president for Quebec City-based Cossette Communications Group, believes it’s high-time that Canadians started yelling a lot more on the world stage. In today’s highly competitive global economy, he believes, Canada needs to boldly market its many attributes to the world. “That kind of self-confidence has benefited American brands and has always been a part of our problem as Canadians,” he notes. “There’s got to be a belief that we can compete on an international basis and that people are going to want Canadian products.”
Effective branding could give Canadian companies a very real competitive edge on the world stage, say marketing and industry experts. But for reasons perhaps rooted in the national psyche, Canada does a poor job of selling itself. We’re not alone: most countries are miserable marketers, says Nicolas Papadopoulos, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business who has studied nation branding for more than 20 years. Those that do it well, he says, have proven the power of good marketing. Canada is well regarded globally, says Papadopoulos, and Canadian companies should be cashing in on our solid reputation. “You’re losing big time,” he says, “if you’re going out and trying to compete without the benefit of an image that is one of the strongest on this planet.”
Canada consistently ranks in the top 10 in the Anholt Nation Brands Index, the foremost ranking of national reputations developed by the British pioneer in the field, Simon Anholt. The quarterly index surveys 25,900 consumers in 35 countries to determine how nations are perceived in areas such as cultural appeal, political stability, and investment potential.
Papadopoulos says his own research underlines Canada’s glowing image abroad, but shows how little overseas consumers know about Canadian products. Over the years, the thousands of people that he and his team have interviewed in other countries have given Canada an average rating of 6 out of a possible 7, but have scored their knowledge of Canadian products at only 2. Canada’s strong overall reputation could create a “halo effect” for Canadian products and services, says Papadopoulos. Most companies waste that opportunity because they don’t brand themselves as Canadian. “What foreign buyers are saying is, ‘We don’t know what you make, but we have such a great image of you that whatever you make is probably going to be good,” he explains. “Canadians are trusted and liked more than practically any nation in the world with the possible exception of Australia,” he adds. “This is an incredible selling tool.”
Canada’s reluctance to use that tool stems, in part, from our proximity to one of the world’s biggest markets – and marketers: the United States. Marchand says too many Canadian companies see success only in American terms, and fail to set their sights on the global market. Outside North America, they may masquerade as U.S. companies, or may even hope to be bought by larger U.S. competitors. As a people, we often define ourselves by how we differ from the United States, rather than on our own unique attributes. The Canadian economy, observes Marchand, also relies heavily on commodities, which in a sense are the opposite of a branded products.
Canada’s branding efforts are a patchwork of provincial and municipal campaigns, along with federal programs aimed at specific sectors like agriculture or tourism, says Papadopoulos. He believes a coordinated, sustained approach would be far more effective. In 1993, he notes, former prime minister Jean Chrétien generated excitement in the business community by announcing a national branding initiative coordinated through the Prime Minister’s Office. But the initiative waned, and by about 2003, it was essentially dead. The current government shows no signs of reviving the effort, says Papadopoulos. “How do you revive the political will?” he asks. “There’s a feeling I have that even Team Canada (trade missions) has been left to wither a little bit, and I think that’s unfortunate.”
If it’s any consolation, marketing experts say, most countries do a poor job of branding themselves. Cities and nations often fail to realize that they compete in a world market for investment, trade, talent, tourists, events, and a host of other things, says Sicco van Gelder, a founder of Placebrands, an Amsterdam-based marketing firm, and the author of the 2003 book Global Brand Strategy. Governments that do realize that hard fact, he adds, often take up the task of marketing on their own, rather than involving other stakeholders. They also mistake simple advertising for branding. Advertising, says van Gelder, raises awareness of features that already exist. Branding, on the other hand, is a promise of value, and is designed to enrich or change the perceptions of a product or place – usually through a direct or indirect experience.
The success stories are rare, but some nations have been more effective than others. Van Gelder says that Spain successfully used the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 to showcase the city’s regeneration and to change the perception of Spain as a European backwater. Marchand says that IKEA, the global furniture and house wares giant, is a master at capitalizing on the Swedish reputation for good design. Germany and the United Kingdom are leaders in marketing to potential investors, says Papadopoulos. Ed Bernacki, an Ottawa-based innovation consultant, points to New Zealand’s successes. Icebreaker, a manufacturer of outdoor gear, became a popular international brand by playing up the benefits of New Zealand merino wool. And everyone knows about New Zealand spring lamb. Why, he asks, can’t the same be done with Alberta beef or maple syrup?
To burnish the Canadian brand, manufacturers should start by investing in advanced technology, says Walid Hejazi, a professor of international business at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. For years, he maintains, Canada’s low dollar undermined the country’s image for quality and innovation. “The way to build a good brand,” he says, “is to provide companies with the resources they need to be as competitive and efficient and productive as they can.”
A national branding campaign won’t succeed without a central group to coordinate all the stakeholders. Orchestrating the effort is the biggest challenge. In some cases, van Gelder recommends the creation of a dedicated brand management organization. The second step, says Papadopoulos, is to secure the support of the business community. Finally, he argues, governments have to put their money where their mouth is. “If business agrees to fly the flag,” he says, “then government has to make the flag look better through marketing.”
Changing our ingrained resistance to flag waving and building Brand Canada will take time. But Marchand is optimistic. “I think the most important thing,” he says, “is we have to get it on the agenda and get people talking about it.” Eventually, he hopes, all that talk will turn into shouting about Canada’s unique advantages.