In a matter of weeks, Tim Hortons will be celebrating that special birthday that starts with a five, follows with a big doughnut and can often lead directly to a midlife crisis.
Tims is as dominant as it’s ever been in the quick service restaurant business in Canada, but there is a risk of losing brand focus as it fights competitors on multiple fronts. It’s an ideal time for Me & My Brand to pay a visit to Bill Moir, the man who has, for a quarter of a century, had his grip on the controls of what may be Canada’s most complex marketing machine.
Top of mind as I roll up to Tims head office in Oakville, 40 minutes west of Toronto, is what an icon the brand is in Canada. We could eat up all my interview time with Tims’ CMO just talking about Roll Up the Rim (this year alone: 47 million prizes, 50 Toyotas and 280 million game cups). Also top of mind is how much those office nerds in Tims’ product and seasonal TV spots drive me nuts. (We’ll get to the Wrap Man in a minute.) This is a brand with a lot of messages—some of them mixed—and I’m curious to see if Moir can help me reconcile them.
The icon status is warranted: the tug-on-the-heartstring True Stories, the Roll Up the Rim rite of spring, Timbits, the hockey parent ads, the Jason Priestley doughnut, a “little piece of home” for soldiers in Afghanistan, Sidney Crosby playing shinny and the incredible success of grassroots community marketing (Free Swim, Smile Cookies and summer camps) that draws on 300 regional groups across the country, all wrapped up in a Main Street Canada community feel that has translated easily into social media engagement. And it’s a rare politician who’d dare campaign in this country without a Tims photo-op. I ask Moir to define the single brand identity across all of this activity.
Moir: At the top of the pyramid, we’re a trusted brand. As any brand, if you are trusted then you have great ability to connect with consumers. Underneath that, you’ve got to be good at a lot of stuff. That’s coffee, but there’s more underneath it. And a deeper understanding of the brand would be community. It really started in-store on a community basis. As we grew we were able to build advertising over and above that.
Over time, what the brand has done is simply played back Canadian values. We understood this and said, “We’re going to be friendly. We’re going to be unpretentious. We’re going to be dependable.” All those things sound a little bland, but that’s what Canadian values are.
Moir is a Canadian marketing icon himself. His career has taken him to K-tel (where he learned “how to compete”), Shell Oil and Labatt Breweries (where he was schooled in product image, quality and the value of promotions). He joined Tim Hortons in 1990 as vice-president of marketing, became executive VP in 1997 and assumed his current title as chief brand and marketing officer in 2008. Through it all, Moir has been in the marketing driver’s seat during the company’s hugely successful run of success. Those who’ve worked with him say he personifies the brand; friendly, unpretentious, dependable—and focused. Like the company—which took 49 years to start doing a trial on a second, darker roast—Moir can be cautious and methodical. When he does decide to move on a category, he may not be first but he’s best to market.
Today, with retirement beckoning, Moir is still front and centre in what is arguably the toughest job in Canadian marketing. Sure, three of every four cups of java sold in Canada still have the Tims logo on them, the chain controls more than 40% of the domestic quick service traffic and there is roughly a quarter of a billion dollars in annual marketing spend to keep it there. But there are also some tall brand challenges at play and paramount among those is how to sustain growth.
Moir: You now have this big brand, so how do you continue to grow it? It’s not that we didn’t work hard over the past 15 to 20 years. But in order for us to continue to do that, we’ve got to be that much better. We have to be more insightful.
To Moir, that means a deeper understanding of day parts to get more of the right products in front of consumers without cluttering up the menu board. Tims mastered breakfast. Ditto cold drinks. Lunch and dinner have upside. The danger is in overreaching and Starbucks is an eerie reminder of a near death-by-growth experience.
Marc Caira, Tim Hortons’ new CEO, has a fresh plan that calls for 800 more stores (500 in Canada and 300 in the U.S.), which will take the total to about 5,300. It also calls for finding new ways to boost in-store spending by becoming more relevant across age groups and demographics, and fixing up stores with faster service, better menu boards, free wifi and a more inviting décor.
At the same time, the company needs to manage its complex brand messages. It is hard to translate Tims’ icon status as a Main Street Canada brand to urban centres. It also has to find the right footing in the U.S., not just adding more stores for sales growth, but recreating the kind of True Stories community marketing connection that built the brand at home, but has to be wrapped in stars and stripes instead of a maple leaf. One tactic the firm is having success with—and which has a major social media echo—is product placement in that ultimate American community: TV and movies (How I Met Your Mother, Justified, Homeland, Grudge Match…).
These days it doesn’t help that the brand story a lot of people are hearing is coming from anaemic quarterly earnings reports. That’s the reality for a public company at the mature stage of the growth cycle. McDonald’s has been through this, but Canadians aren’t used to it with Tims. I ask Moir how annoying it is to have business writers jump on Tims every three months, mining for negative storylines in the earnings reports. A straight shooter, Moir acknowledges his frustration with a twinkle in his eye, but you won’t catch him taking a shot at the media.
Moir: As you know, some writers are better than others and some understand financial markets and get the story. Over the last [several] years, because we have to report quarterly, it gets written up.
Ken Wong, marketing guru at Queen’s University, insists the ownership structure is potentially a double threat to the brand. Not only does it create a distraction by serving up the numbers for the media to talk about slower growth rates every three months, it also poses the danger of becoming a competing strategic focus for the C-suite leadership.
“As a business, Tims has to be concerned with what shareholders want,” Wong explains. “You’ve got to grow. I think the days where you evaluate a brand solely in the context of the consumer reaction to it are gone. The Tim Hortons we commonly think about is not the Tim Hortons that needs to be managed for capital markets.”
If Tims can’t be seen to serve customers and investors effectively at the same time, one solution would be to go private. Trouble with that is Tim Hortons is now valued at roughly $8.5 billion, so that would require very deep pockets.
I can’t help it—my mind is drifting back to the Wrap Man ad from five years ago, and all those spots featuring simple-minded office workers and their moronic banter over new products. These are the kinds of people I deeply fear getting stuck in an elevator with, but maybe that says more about me than them. I press Moir and, predictably, come off looking supercilious and feeling downright un-Canadian.
Moir: That’s you. You’re downtown, it’s your view of the world. Humour is a really tough thing to do. You’re trying to bring a smile without getting into slapstick. Everybody doesn’t find the same things humorous, right?
True. And the lineups for Tims are way longer than for Starbucks in the downtown office tower food courts I visit. So maybe the ads are working and I’m just a snob. Still, it’s hard to reconcile the Wrap Man corniness with the True Stories magic, and I’m not alone. Schulich’s Alan Middleton, one of Marketing’s Brand Doctors, nailed that tension in our last issue (March 2014, p. 52) when he diagnosed that Tims office humour now mocks the people who happen to be its customers. “It impacts the empathy between the brand and its customers,” he cautioned. Meanwhile, those young parents having lattes in McDonald’s ads look like people you can actually have a conversation with, which is dangerous for Tims in the middle of a marketing war for coffee hearts and minds.
I ring Ron Joyce, Tims’ co-founder, and we chat a bit about corporate history. His stormy relations with Tim Horton’s widow, rants against par-baked doughnuts and break with Dave Thomas and Wendy’s are rich narratives in their own, but Me & My Brand picks up a few anecdotes worth sharing here. One is Joyce’s nomination for the lamest slogan the company ever came up with for doughnuts: Always Fresh, Because You Keep Eating Them. Compared to that, the Wrap Man is gold. Another is his concern the brand grew out of community, but has lost that connection. “It’s a marketing company now,” he laments.
JWT Canada has been on the Tims account for about as long as Moir has been there and it has brought a lot of inspired thinking to the brand, as well as results.
Moir: Good advertising comes from good strategy. [Executive creative director] Paul Wales has worked on our brand for 10 years or more and understands the essence of the brand. [Even the best True Stories ads] don’t win awards, but sometimes in the ad world you can get awarded for stuff that actually doesn’t make it to the market. We want stuff that drives the brand, builds it and helps to sell stuff. That’s what you’re supposed to do and that’s what they’ve done.
What becomes clear in chatting with Moir is the strategic effort involved to surround consumers—all age groups, demographics, city and rural customers—and with all of that messaging volume, some of it is going to go astray.
As an example of the surround strategy, Moir explains Tims’ five-prong attack in coffee marketing, which ranges from promotions (Roll Up the Rim) to emotion (True Stories), quality (the 20-minute promise), ethics (Fair Trade) and popularity (Canada’s Favourite Coffee).
Moir: There are five different ways we actually speak about coffee. So it gets to people who want to hear not necessarily all those messages, perhaps, but it’s important that they get them all.
The most common Tims ads are tied to products, especially the short-term featured items like wraps and steak subs. New products will become increasingly important if Tims is to deliver on its plan to grow sales with a greater share of wallet at the till (60% of orders are now single item and Tims wants you to go for more combos), as opposed to just from opening more stores.
Moir: About every four weeks we are on the air with something new. It’s going to keep giving you a reason to keep coming back to us. It doesn’t have to be new platforms every time. It can be taking products and just tweaking them. It’s not that everybody wants that particular product.
That’s it; the interview is winding down. The company has fresh leadership and 50 candles to blow out. Lots to celebrate, for Tim Hortons and for Moir, who, now in his mid-60s and ever methodical, looks in no hurry to step away from the toughest job in Canadian marketing. But, again, a twinkle in his eye reveals he’s warming to the idea.
Moir: Time for a change.
Photography: Jaime Hogge