Brand Doctor: Does Tim Hortons need a facelift at 50?

Tim Hortons has icon status. But it also turns 50 in May and is feeling the heat on all fronts as the leader in Canada’s quick-service category, Tim’s has well-documented challenges. It’s definitely time to reenergize. But where to start? Alan Middleton, Executive Director, Schulich Executive Education Centre Diagnosis: Tim’s mainstream advertising is looking a […]

Tim Hortons has icon status. But it also turns 50 in May and is feeling the heat on all fronts as the leader in Canada’s quick-service category, Tim’s has well-documented challenges. It’s definitely time to reenergize. But where to start?

Alan Middleton, Executive Director, Schulich Executive Education Centre


Diagnosis: Tim’s mainstream advertising is looking a little tired and erratic, despite its record with the great “Good Ol’ Hockey” spot. For years, the product-focused messaging portrayed Tim Hortons’ customers and staff in a light hearted but respectful manner. Too many executions now laugh at the people, not with. Also, the recent Coffee Art campaign looks reactive and defensive, reminiscent of Coca-Cola’s “New Coke” response to the Pepsi Challenge.

Prescription: Tim Hortons needs to renew its mysteriously abandoned stories reflecting Canada’s community relationships and cultural mosaic. Build some excitement back in both traditional and digital media that invites trial in a “Tim’s brand” way that links into the Tim Hortons’ community stories. This will need the team to more directly engage with customers and staff in Canadian communities to achieve an authenticity for the approach and avoid the recent clumsiness.

David Kincaid, CEO Level5 Strategy Group (with Lan An, consultant)


Diagnosis: You should always expect the same neighbourhood feel and quick, convenient and friendly service as soon as you walk through the door. But the franchisee system that enabled the brand to grow successfully throughout Canada is also creating inconsistencies in customer experience.

Prescription: The traditional prescription for consistency is standardized training programs, performance metrics and tracking mechanisms. But where Tim Hortons truly differs is in the emotional connection it has built with Canadians and this is delivered through relationships. Your brand is your business system and achieving the right balance between process standardization while maintaining a personal touch is what is going to maintain Tim Hortons’ growth. The new management team must understand that customer experience is not only said but done. It cannot be fixed solely by advertising.

Luke Sklar, Partner, Sklar Wilton & Associates


Diagnosis: As Tim Hortons enters its dreary mid­life stage, it’s time to reflect and decide how to reenergize. We in the brand medical community often characterize Tim’s as the best executor in the business, rolling out interesting new products with ease at shockingly attractive price points. By contrast, its strategic choices often seem a little muddled. Are you sure the only solution is to chase that tantalizing, voluptuous market to the south?

Prescription: Spend to strength: You are not flatlining in Canada just because of store count saturation. Avoid menu scope creep and simplify your menu. As Canada’s favourite coffee, go bigger on the home coffee capsules. Clarify and manage expectations on your U.S. plan. What will Tim Hortons’ “special sauce” be there? What’s the difference between you and Dunkin? Without the Canadian emotional aura, why should I care? C’mon Tim’s, we love you but wake up and smell the right growth plan.

Geoff Roche, former ad man, co-founder of WearToday + Poolhouse


Diagnosis: Tim Hortons is the luckiest company in Canada, but leaders need to lead. Like Ford with its F150 in the U.S., it built a huge lead over the years with smart marketing and customer loyalty. Ford just stole the Detroit Auto Show by boldly announcing they’ll build trucks out of aluminum. Tim Hortons needs to lead in all that they do.

Prescription: New CEO Marc Caira needs to take the shackles off his ad agency JWT. The work over the years has been amazing in many ways. Now it has to be brilliant and not just on TV. If they want to appeal to a younger demo, they’d better hurry. Keep hockey but also try soccer. Get a giant relief helicopter to send in Tim’s during times of disaster. Lead environmentally. Surprise people in the marketing, the stores and the experience. Go Marc Go!

This story originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Marketing, available to subscribers in print and on your iPad.

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