How Tim Hortons got into this #boycottTimHortons mess

What was Tim Hortons thinking when it ran those Enbridge ads?

How Tim Hortons get into this no-win #boycottTimHortons mess

Conservative leader and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper works behind the counter during a campaign stop at a Tim Hortons in Dieppe, New Brunswick April 1, 2011. Canadians will head to the polls in a federal election May 2. Chris Wattie/Reuters

Conservative leader and Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper works behind the counter during a campaign stop at a Tim Hortons in Dieppe, New Brunswick April 1, 2011. Canadians will head to the polls in a federal election May 2. Chris Wattie/Reuters

And just like that Tim Hortons went from darling of the Conservatives to scourge of Canada’s energy superpower ambitions.

The decision by Canada’s largest restaurant chain to yank ads for pipeline giant Enbridge from its in-store TV network on Thursday sparked an immediate and utterly predictable backlash online—well, predictable that is, unless you happen to be an executive at Tim Hortons. What started with a petition and calls earlier this week for a boycott against Tim Hortons for showing the Enbridge ads had, within hours, led to calls for a boycott against Tim Hortons for yanking them.

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Everything started to go wrong for Tims shortly after Enbridge highlighted the ads on its blog (the post has been removed but you can see a cached version with the ads here). An organization called SumOfUs launched a petition demanding Tim Hortons drop the ads. After some 30,000 people signed up, the wobbly corporate knees at Tim Hortons HQ gave way.

At which point Stephen Taylor, conservative strategist and former chair of the National Citizens Coalition took up the pro-pipeline cause.

Before long Michelle Rempel, the MP for Calgary Centre and minister of State joined in. So did Jason Kenney (without actually calling for a boycott) and former Alberta Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith. It wasn’t all politicians on the right coming out against the company—Kyle Harrietha, the Liberal candidate for Fort McMurray-Cold Lake called on the company to re-air the ads—but there was a clear political bent to the Twitter protest. Which was rather interesting to watch, since no politician has done more to associate himself and his party with Tim Hortons nation than Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

How did Tim Hortons get into this no-win #boycottTimHortons mess? Were there no souls at the company who thought to ask themselves, “Hey, we sell donuts, do we really want to wade into the middle of the oil sands pipeline quagmire?”

To understand why Tims finds itself in the situation it’s in, it helps to understand a bit about its plunge into the broadcasting industry. Two factors in particular have made in-store TV technology popular—TV screens keep getting cheaper, while margin-crunched retailers and restaurants are looking for ways to squeeze more money out of their existing locations. Wal-Mart has an in-store TV program. So does McDonald’s in the U.S. For its part, Tim Hortons first rolled out its TV initiative in 2013 on a trial basis, with a goal of airing “creative, informative and entertaining” content, and offering “like-minded companies which share similar brand values the opportunity to advertise on the network.” By 2014 it was available in 95 per cent of its locations.

TimsTV has a lot going for it. On any given day more than five million pairs of dreary eyelids pass through its 4,500-plus Canadian locations looking for a caffeine fix. Conventional network TV execs would kill for such a massive and captive audience. Yet for good reason in-store TV struggled to catch on over the past couple of decades, with some companies rolling out in-store networks only to later backtrack. Getting the technology right has been one problem, but more important was figuring out what content to put on those screens and how to navigate potential pitfalls with advertisers, as any conventional media company might.

Look, it could have been worse. The coffee chain might have accidentally bombarded its customers with porn on its TV screens, as a Swiss McDonald’s and Oklahoma KFC both did.

Actually, scratch that. Mistakenly showing a skin flick would no doubt earn Tim Hortons a barrage of complaints and several days of snarky headlines. But that’s nothing an abject apology from a grovelling executive or another round of saccharine commercials showing tykes on skates couldn’t fix. The damage from #BoycottTimHortons has the potential to be far more lasting.

What, for instance, can Tim Hortons say at this point? Crisis PR 101 would suggest you get out in front of the story, express some form of regret, and then pipe down until it all passes over. It’s hard to see that working here. Apologize for airing the ads in the first place, or then later pulling them, and the company comes off as reactionary and buffoonish to both the pro- and anti- oil sands camps. Or does Tim Hortons now have to determine on which side of the oil sands and pipeline question most Canadians land? (Good luck with that.)

This isn’t a matter of self censorship, or judging Enbridge, the oil sands or pipelines. It’s a matter of business common sense. Conventional broadcast, print and digital media regularly run ads for companies some people object to, but no one makes much of a fuss because it’s understood this is the media business model (such as it is, and for now). But Tim Hortons isn’t a media organization. It’s in the business of selling as much fast food as efficiently and profitably as it can. That’s what its investors expect it to do. When the company chose to go beyond what it does best and plunge into the network TV business, it’s obvious it didn’t think everything through.

Don’t be surprised if those in-store TVs disappear.



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What was Tim Hortons thinking when it ran those Enbridge ads?

  1. Timmies should have objected a long time ago.

    It was used to sell the Con party…..and a war

    You play with dirt….you get your hands dirty.

    No sympathy.

  2. That Tims in Canada would pay ANY attention to a US-based environmental(sic) group that puts together a petition that uses the disparaging term “tar sands” defies credulity.

    Clearly, those people have little or no grasp of the Canadian economic reality.

    Tims should be ashamed of their knee-jerk reaction…and apologize. Or, perhaps, Tims will be pleased to close many of their Alberta stores.

    • I am Canadian, born and bred 83 years ago. I don’t pay attention to environmentalists blindly. But I also don’t want oil company, sanitary pads or any other unrelated advertisements rammed down my throat when I buy a product at any store. And I don’t want the smell my coffee and carmel-creamy donuts destroyed by the smell of Tories. So I hope all, of you Cons do boycott Timmy’s. All the more for decent folk.

  3. Stop picking on Tim Hortons.

    At least they managed to get the gun pointed at their foot before pulling the trigger.

  4. It is embarrassing that Tim’s leadership is so unaware of the meaninglessness of online petions:

    The NHL lets fans vote online for who should be on the All Star team. Zemgus Girgensons got 1,574,896 votes and ended up first in the voting.

    With the Doofus’s run Tim’s I expect their next move would to sign Ziggy as a Tim Horton’s spokesman.

    Luckily Mr. Girgensons was too busy playing pretty good hockey. He could have been elected leader of the NDP who ran their leadership voting online……

    Last election The Green party got 576,000 votes. If the Debate consortium just listens to the public they would have Elizabeth May debate Zemgus Girgensons.

  5. The real question – why would they react to a 28,000 name petition run by a New York based organization.
    Sounds like a damn good way to alienate working Canadians who stop in at Tim’s everyday. Enbridge is valued for jobs, investment and acting to minimize environmental impact. Maybe the individual at Tim’s who folded in the face of an obscure minority has been fired. We have a weak economy and still have a lot of unemployed or underemployed across North America. Tim’s should eat crow and act immediately, honour the contact, run the ads and get on with it.

    • It’s the internet, stupid. You don’t have to be an American to see it and respond. I’d bet that most of those signatures came from us, Canadians. Most people in the US don’t know that a Tim Horton’s is anything but what comes from Dr. Seuss. Now Crispy Cream they know.

      Born and bred a working, from factories and railway to mail delivery and beyond, Canadian and alienated by suck adds.

  6. Well, I believe this problem is mostly because of that ‘merican hamburger company stealing parts of Tim Horton’s franchises. We never had trouble like this before they entered the picture. Hortons was “Canadian through and through” Now it’s just another American company competing for our natural resources.

  7. Now I know why I have to be subjected to eye drop ads while in the waiting room at the optician’s. I find that profoundly disturbing.

  8. People pleasing gone nuts… I stopped shopping at stores who banned their employees from saying ” merry xmas ” and I can get as good or better munchies elsewhere if required..

  9. Timmies should have just told every Canadian whose livelihood depends on the oil patch to eff off.

    Some American ‘activists’ beliefs are clearly more important than the good jobs that support many in our economy.