The Tim Hortons brand is badly broken. Here’s how to fix it.

Tim Hortons needs better stores, better media coverage, better coffee —and less fighting with franchisees.
(Photo Illustration by Stephen Gregory)
(Photo Illustration by Stephen Gregory)

Companies stumble on a regular basis and Tim Hortons is no exception. There have been battles between owners, battles with franchisees over expensive ovens for par-baked doughnuts, social media gaffes, minimum wage labour policy trip-ups, declining market share and popularity of its coffee, unpopular ads and other missteps. But this stumble is different. Tim Hortons is vulnerable in a way it has never been before; the iconic brand is in serious trouble.

Last year, Tim Hortons reputational brand ranking plummeted from 4th place among Canadians in 2016 to 50th, according to Leger. Another survey in 2018, from the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business in Victoria, B.C., found Tims had free fallen to 203rd spot on a brand trust basis, from 27th place a year earlier and number one overall as recently as 2015. It’s a short drive from iconic to notorious, when you’ve driven off a cliff.

The company’s owners since 2014, Restaurant Brands International (RBI), were based in the U.S. before moving the head office to Oakville, Ont., with a further move slated to downtown Toronto. And RBI is backed by Brazilian investors 3G Capital, who are legendary, if not downright notorious, themselves for their love of cost-cutting at the companies they buy. Many critics, including a number of franchisees in Canada, insist the company has lost its way under its new bosses and is threatening to shatter the emotional cultural connection it has held with Canadians for more than five decades. (On the other hand, let’s be clear, there is no indication things have reached the level where other Canadians appear likely to follow the lead of one woman who escalated her own, unclear frustrations to point of flinging her feces at Tims staff at a Langley, B.C. restaurant in mid-May.)

The company is aware it has a challenge and is currently on a listening tour, getting feedback from franchisees on how to execute a bold, new $700-million revitalization plan. The mission is to make better coffee, improve the food, redesign the stores and smooth over media relations to tell the public and franchisees a better story. It’s a tall order, but the first step on the road to recovery is to be honest about your mistakes.

READ: The unexpected anguish of winning the prize every Canadian wants

“We can’t pretend everything is good or that we did all the right things. We could have done a few things better,” acknowledges Tims president President Alex Macedo. “The last three months have been very difficult for the brand…We definitely don’t like to be in the media with controversies and business issues with our restaurant owners…So much as has been said, and it is difficult to break from the clutter, but we have decided to communicate better.”

The comeback strategy, called Winning Together, will almost certainly be an uphill slog. Already, some franchisees have complained that the $700 million will only go so far and they themselves will be on the hook for as much as $450,000 in renovation costs —per store. And the strategy will be put in place as intense competition accelerates, especially from McDonald’s which has found huge success climbing the quality scale on coffee and is now stealing Tims’ thunder by offering bagels alongside their Egg McMuffins, to turn up the heat in the fast-food breakfast wars.

In order for Canadians to get a real handle on how things got so bad in the first place, and how Tims can hope to dig themselves out again, Maclean’s put together a roundtable of three of Canada’s leading brand strategists: Jeannette Hanna, founder of Trajectory Brands; Alan Middleton, assistant professor of Marketing and executive director of the Schulich Executive Education Centre; and Bruce Philp, author and branding consultant with Heuristic Branding. Here is  the conversation.

More a fall than a mere stumble

Q: How different is this stumble and what specifically do you think is to blame?

Alan Middleton: Is the Canadian Love Affair with Tim Horton’s Over?  Not quite but the affection is cooling. Why? I once made a presentation that indicated that brands don’t die, they are murdered. And usually not by one big death blow but by the death of a thousand cuts.

So what is Tims doing wrong? Lots. They are losing most of the good marketing and operations people at Tims who built the business.  And, they are not rebuilding an employee culture of growth and trust, but rather one of moneypinching authoritarianism.

Here are seven examples of what that looks like.

Management is:

  1. Mismanaging the franchisees by lack of constructive consultation;
  2. Reducing payments to critical areas such as local community promotions/sponsorships
    (known in business academe as KSFs…Key Success Factors) and myriad other small cuts;
  3. Turning their advertising into predominantly ‘price and item’ advertising that looks exactly like all other food service offerings;
  4. Introducing products that try to extend their relevance in lighter trafficked day parts (fast food jargon for time of day) like afternoon and evening. There is no problem with trying to do this, but the products they are trying lack uniqueness, healthiness and are very ‘un-Tims’;
  5. Underestimating McDonald’s as a competitor and, to some extent, Subway as well;
  6. Failing at press relations based on poor understanding of PR (yes what the media says still  matters!) and not effectively handling social media, especially influencers and opinion leaders; and perhaps most important…
  7. Misunderstanding their target groups. Yes Tims needs to improve relevance to the younger millennials and the emerging centennials, but not in a way that alienates their core audience of Boomers and Gen X-ers. And they also need to do it in a way that the recent immigrant populations see consuming Tims products as  a way to become more  Canadianized.

On top of all that, now they announce a move of headquarters from Oakville to downtown Toronto, which is not a big issue in and of itself but betrays a signal of disregard for cost and a poor understanding of a Tims culture with its roots in non-downtown areas, away from big city culture.

READ: Tim Hortons’ reputation is tanking after a year of stumbles and bitter feuds

So, has its brand regard slipped? Yes in all measures.  Will the results collapse overnight? No. But all the issues I’ve justed addressed show a slow chipping away at one of Tims most important assets: its brand reputation as a friendly, community-oriented, good-value neighbour who provides both the familiar rituals of visits, products and people but adds relevant new exploratory dishes and services.

Bruce Philp: What I think is significant about the recent dip in the affection Canadians have for the Tim Hortons brand is how sudden it was. In a single year, they went from perennial all-star to the doghouse, something that didn’t even happen after the company was sold in 2014.

I remember interviewing incoming CEO Marc Caira for Canadian Business shortly before the deal was announced, and thinking afterward “butter wouldn’t melt in this guy’s mouth… he knew what was coming, and gave me the company line as if it were religion. They’re going to pay for this,” I concluded.

But they didn’t. Nor did they after any of their previous corporate misadventures, nor in the years following the sale when their stores became a riot of opportunistic menu expansion and promotion. This brand has been stunningly resilient. So what finally found their Achilles heel?

The answer is probably more easily discovered in one of their restaurants than in their downtown Toronto corporate office. Where I live, Tim Hortons outnumber Starbucks by about a million to one, so I’m a frequent visitor. And what I see when I’m there are a lot of trucks in the parking lot, people in reflective vests and hardhats, and counter staff who know customers by name or call them “hon”.

For these people, the Tim Hortons brand isn’t an abstraction, it’s a ‘third space’ (between home and the office) in the truest possible sense, with a pointed lack of pretence that makes them feel comfortable and understood.

That kind of social utility can withstand a lot of corporate shenanigans and cognitive dissonance. Until, that is, you attack those people who call you “hon”. Tim Hortons took aim squarely at their own feet when they withdrew worker benefits in the wake of changes to Ontario’s new minimum wage rules. To those people sipping coffee in their restaurants, it was a betrayal of the most fundamental and personal kind and, over night, it superimposed a brutal narrative onto everything else the chain did.

READ: The hypocrisy of Tim Hortons, a business built on coffee breaks

Will the damage be terminal? Likely not, if we’re realistic. Besides the historic resilience of the brand and its value proposition, these reputational brushfires tend to get extinguished pretty quickly by today’s news cycle.

But what Tim Hortons lacks right now is benefit of the doubt among the people who loved it the most. It’s not impossible to lose them. And until that goodwill is replenished, every wrong order, every dirty bathroom, every grumpy server will be seen as a sign of decline. No brand, including almighty Timmy’s, can take that forever.

Jeannette Hanna: As you point out, Alan, the continuous chipping away at the foundational Tim Hortons’ values of growth and trust through the “money pinching authoritarianism” is always dangerous. And Bruce, you highlight how withdrawing worker benefits was, justifiably, seen as a betrayal of what’s made the brand so resilient – its unpretentious “folks like us” persona. And the owner, Restaurant Brands International (RBI), has been playing so fast and loose with its promises to franchisees that Ottawa is threatening to step in.

I think it’s important to remember that franchise owners and their staff know which side their bagels are buttered on. They succeed when they serve their communities – not shareholders. RBI, which also owns Burger King and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, seems completely disconnected from that reality. I think when you embody the regular guy/gal archetype, unfairness is the cardinal sin.

It used to be different. When we interviewed Paul House, former President and CEO of Tim Hortons, for our book Ikonica in 2007, his priorities were antithetical to those of the current management regime: “We start with the people and then we work from there…,” House told us. “Some businesses have lost sight of what part people play in a successful company. We don’t take it for granted… This is a company where every employee counts,” he said.

READ: In a fight over minimum wage at Tim Hortons, the worker loses

When asked what kept him up at night, House replied, “Complacency.” His fear of complacency was really a fear of losing sight of the long view: “We won’t be swayed by stock price or anything. We talk about long term, what’s right for the company and what’s right for everybody in it.” The Tim Hortons business may survive, but Canada’s once-premier brand is being slowly strangled by owners who don’t get, or care, about what allowed it to flourish. I fear the clash of values at play will turn Tims into a shadow of its former self.

What’s on the menu: The food and coffee

Q: Is Tims falling behind when it comes to the quality and price of its products?

Tim Hortons and McDonald’s coffee cups. (Shutterstock)

Philp: I may prove to be an outlier, here, but I think fiddling with the menu is neither the problem nor the solution. We all like conceptual purity in a brand, but that’s a luxury for pundits. The fact is that Tims has been struggling for years with both finding new places to put stores and with same-store sales. It’s perfectly natural —and essential— that they should turn to new menu items and dayparts to find revenue growth, and I don’t think there’s any real evidence that customers find this objectionable. It’s just business, and the brand should be able to tolerate it easily.

The exception might be coffee. But even here, I don’t see “upping their game” as the tip of any kind of re-branding spear. It’s a defensive strategy they have to engage in. Coffee tastes in this country have been evolving for a couple of decades, and they’d be nuts not to keep pace with – but not lead – those changes. Doing just that, I suspect, is how they ended up adding Dark Roast to the menu last year, and it seems to have been handled sensibly.

I feel the same way about McDonald’s. To me, they are a threat because they now offer an alternative to Tims, but that’s only an issue if people are given a reason to consider one. Let’s not forget that McDonalds’ own current strength is rooted not in a creative reimagining of the brand, but in a return to its ‘food, not toys; values, not novelty’ fundamentals some 15 years ago.

And this really gets to the heart of the danger, here. If Tims decides to save itself by following brands it perceives to be leaders, whether in store design or espresso drinks, it risks making a mistake that has littered the history of marketing with corpses of once-great brands: trying to fix who you are by pretending to be who you’re not.

READ: Donuts, hockey, tax cuts and Afghanistan

So, go ahead and play with the menu, Timmy’s. Just don’t mess up the atmosphere in those restaurants, or the price of admission.

Middleton: While I agree with Bruce that the menu is not the big ‘turn around’ issue, I think he underestimates its importance. Tims, like President’s Choice and Canadian Tire, stands for both good value from the familiar but also in helping us explore new foods. The menu at Tims must offer both comfort and familiarity but also some excitement, so yes the menu is important.

However, it is not the total brand. The current management’s plan to upgrade the stores is indeed another part of the equation to keep the brand fresh. They are correct: it is part of the brand mix. I can only hope, though, they have researched the design with clients as well as franchisees and operators alongside the budgets. Just like the menu, there is a need to strike this balance of familiar and contemporary, ritual and exploration. It has to retain its special Tims identity.

I have only seen pictures so far, so my judgement is based on too limited an exposure to the concept and no exposure to any research to offer a really valid opinion. However, my first impression is not positive: too bright; too similar to other foodservice organizations.  Similar to the fundamental strategic error I first identified, Tims is becoming too like its competitors and in danger of losing its special identity in the hearts, minds and wallets of Canadians.

Hanna: Recently, Daniel Schwartz, the company’s CEO, acknowledged that Tim Hortons’ issues, “can’t be addressed with a series of short easy fixes.” He’s right on that one. Let’s start with coffee. Canadians love their java. In 2017, we made the top 10 list for the world’s biggest coffee drinkers per capita – ahead of Italy (13), France (18) and the US (26). And we’re #3 in the world for the most Starbucks per capita.

In its glory days, there was a powerful mystique about Tim Hortons roast. The fanaticism of its coffee loyalists gave rise to an urban legend that the company was secretly adding “extras” (nicotine?) to their coffee to make it addictive to customers. You didn’t have to drink Tim Hortons brew to know, by reputation, that it was in a class apart. Today, having McDonald’s and others ascend the podium in the coffee sweepstakes is a major blow that bears closer inspection.

So what happened? Have Canadians’ tastes evolved so quickly? Has their beverage actually changed? Perhaps perceptions have spiked the coffee and left a slightly bitter aftertaste.

Evolving their menu and the retail look are fine things to do but the “feel” needs a recalibration too. Schwartz and co. should up their game on values as much as retro graphics. During this year’s “Roll Up” contest the social media zeitgeist bristled with contempt. “Roll up the Rim is back! And it comes with new prizes like health benefits and lunch breaks for employees.” Hmm. It all flavours the brand.

Stop it with the infighting, already

Q: How can you make customers happy when franchisees are complaining so much?

Hanna: This is the part of the story where everybody loses – a fast-food version of “tragedy of the commons.” The officially elected Tim Hortons Canadian Franchisee Advisory Board noted in a letter recently, “We are fully aware and understand that the transition of this company did not go smoothly.” Full marks for understatement!

While everyone is culpable in this kind of family soap opera, I have to lay the “bad guy” role on the parent company, RBI. They set a negative tone right from the start. Sure, acquired franchisees are likely to be prickly in any new relationship but that shouldn’t be a surprise. As the new owners, trust-building should be job number one and they seem to have fumbled badly there.

Where to next? With sales declining and all the negative press, there’s clearly a fire in the kitchen. So it’s got to be all hands on deck. RBI needs to show leadership here. Hold off on the bun fight and focus on some meaningful signals of constructive collaboration – meaningful to staff and meaningful to customers.

READ: The true story of how Tim Hortons was founded on greed and betrayal

After the racially motivated incident where two African Americans men were arrested for not purchasing anything at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, CEO Kevin Johnson took on the challenge of “unconscious bias” in a very public way. Whether you’re a skeptic about how effective it will be, it was a tangible signal that Starbucks takes its values and community role seriously.

RBI and its franchisees need to find their own cause to rally around – something more compelling than a menu tweak. It should speak to the kind of people place that build the brand originally.

Boston cream doughnut at Time Hortons. (Shutterstock)

Philp: Despite the platitudes that surround it, franchising will always be a lousy business model. It’s a necessary evil for corporations that can’t afford to build stores and for entrepreneurs who can’t afford to build brands. But neither of them would go down this road if they had a choice. It’s a power struggle by definition, and distrust and resentment are never far below the surface on either side of the equation.

This is a problem Starbucks doesn’t have; they own their stores. Here is how the coffee giant’s founder Howard Schulz decribes the downside of franchising:

“I always viewed franchising as a way to get access to capital, because you’re using other people’s money to grow, essentially. And we were dealing with a premium product—something that can be hard to learn, that you have to explain to the customer, that requires an educated staff. It would have been hard to provide the level of sensitivity to customers and knowledge of the product needed to create those Starbucks values if we franchised.”

That’s one ugly truth about franchising. Here’s the other one: the franchised businesses that work best are the ones with the strongest brands. Brands are a franchisor’s leverage… they are the biggest reason franchisees sign up in the first place, and the only asset that can’t be imitated. Popular brands compel operators to deliver consistently, and to trust head office. As long as a brand is famous and adored, franchisees are going to be relatively peaceful and compliant.

So, while I get that Tims franchisees haven’t had an easy time with RBI and am not surprised, I also think some of them smell blood in the water in terms of public sentiment, and are seizing the opportunity to pile on. That catastrophic decline in Tim Hortons reputation has momentarily given franchisees a voice and some control over this narrative, and they’re using it to ensure Tims doesn’t make them pay to fix the problem. It’s ruthless, but it’s also part of the deal when you’re a franchisor. Timmy’s dropped its guard, here.

I heartily agree with Jeannette that everybody needs to sit down and focus on “constructive collaboration,” but I think they’re crazy to perform this kabuki in the public eye. Nobody benefits from this “soap opera”, not even those rogue franchisees, and least of all consumers. Even in good times, people don’t want to think of Tim Hortons and their stores as separate businesses, and history has shown again and again that they feel dangerously alienated by corporate infighting.

READ: Lessons for Burger King from the Tim Hortons-Wendy’s merger

Tims needs to take this drama offline, and say and do nothing publicly that isn’t about what’s in it for its customers. The sooner the word “franchisee” disappears from the Tim Hortons news feed, the sooner the business can return to making money. For everybody.

Middleton: Having worked with a number of franchise operations in a number of countries I agree that it is a difficult management task for the franchisor. It requires deft management skills, a perspective beyond the immediate term and an understanding of how to build brand strength with all stakeholders: consumers, employees, strategic allies including any franchisees,  suppliers and, of course, investors.

However, I disagree with Bruce; it is not a lousy business model. The advantage of having owners of an enterprise close to its customers/consumers is immense if managed well. Indeed I would argue that the managerial skill set that managing this complexity requires is exactly the skill set required for management in all enterprises in the future.

The ability to manage multiple stakeholders with often contradictory goals is part of the VUCA world that all managers now face: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.

The point is that franchisees and their employees are the point of contact with consumers and their community. That is the power of the model that so often puts it ahead of a salaried employee in a distant head office making brand, marketing and operational decisions divorced from direct consumer and community contact.

The modern non-franchise organization now struggles to get agility in decision making closer to the point of customer contact, yet still reap the advantages of central systems of information and financing. In this way there is much to learn from franchising – a vibrant business model.

The trouble with the Tim Horton’s current situation is that the new, more narrowly financially-driven and inexperienced leadership appears not to have the skill, knowledge or consumer orientation to manage the challenge. Jeannette and Bruce are both right, they need to take the debate and discussion out of media coverage.

The listening that needs to take place is to determine what the franchisees are hearing from their customers and their operating and marketing issues and additionally to determine what Tims management is hearing from its research and what operational improvements they can provide to help the whole system improve its delivery of appropriate brand value.

READ: Hijacker takes bus for Tim Hortons trip

Neither “side” will get all they want, but if they stick to what should be their overarching goal, to deliver an improved, differentiated exciting value proposition to Canadians, they can all regain the trust and the business of those Canadians.

Time for a fix: Where do you start?

Q: Let’s assume you got the Tims top job tomorrow and could put a four-point plan in play, what would it be?

Middleton: Okay, here are four things to fix the brand:

One. This part needs to be done quickly. Review the current staff at Tim Hortons : use Jack Ma of Alibaba’s tests for IQ, EQ and LQ (Love Quotient….have a look at Jack Ma’s presentation at Davos earlier this year for what LQ is). Then promote those with the best blend of the three and organize a strategic planning session. This should plan the move forward towards a relaunched Tims. Develop not a final or fixed plan but one comprehensive enough to take out for input. Then seek input from four groups: first staff and not just senior staff but those at Tims and in the franchisees. Then franchisee representatives then customers and then, after you have run the financials, the investors.

Make sure this plan covers critical areas that we have discussed previously:

  • Franchisee relations and funding including 3 year plans for facilities upgrading (but to a décor appropriate for Tims not a generic fast fooder!). Ensure facilities planning includes user friendly AI systems to improve customer experience.
  • Menu development: review research and experience with new customer groups like younger Millenials and immigrant groups in their taste and meal preferences. Invite key suppliers to submit their thoughts and development opportunities. Target key seasons and dayparts for introduction.
  • Review current marketing communications strategy to enliven and update Tims overall positioning that includes item and price but does not ignore character and personality. Invite social media input. Reengage local community activities.
  • Operations: classify operations spending based on not just its efficiency but its contribution to Tims character and personality and then look for supply chain integration and savings. Canada is still slow in adopting more efficient and customer-centric supply chain and logistics solutions but they exist globally.

Two. Enact the above plan. In the first 9 months move quickly on:

  • Intensive franchise discussion and renewed goal setting….together.
  • Menu development for key periods.
  • Operations strategy.

Three. Other moves to continue the changes will take longer: track the changes; step up the feedback loops and be prepared to be a little more agile in adapting direction and activity.

Four. Build new capability in three areas:

  • Add feature activity to local stores to include local community activity…both entertainment and community service. Seek local association and not-for-profit community relations as well as local artists and events.
  • Reinvigorate Tims grocery product offerings: seek new distribution channels and arrangements.
  • Seek new national and regional, uniquely Tims branded events like “Roll Up the Rim to Win” emphasise multicultural and youthful activity.

Overall my strategy would be not to return to the past, but position Tims and its franchise and employee family as the good value, comfort zone offering ritual and exploration for the future.

READ: Tims enlists Jason Priestly for doughnut help

Hanna: Alan’s Action Agenda is very comprehensive and sound. I’d just suggest a few tweaks. AS CEO, I would want to first rebuild trust and, second, demonstrate that the organization has the ability and creativity to grow and change.

Here’s one strategy: Convene a virtual summit of franchisees along the lines of IBM’s 2006 groundbreaking “Innovation Jam” –  a collaboration innovation that attracted more than 150,000 participants from 104 countries over the course of two 72-hour sessions.

Participants were drawn by IBM’s commitment to invest up to US$100 million to develop and bring the best ideas from the event to market. For Tim Hortons, the goal would be to engage franchisees (and their staff) in determining the best ideas for driving success in the future. Make it a “What can we build together that will raise all the boats?” action agenda, supported by a real commitment to investment by RBI.

Leveling the playing field for large and small operations with on-line engagement will ensure all kinds of voices are heard. Obviously, RBI must deliver on its investment but guided by those who are closest to the customers.

Philp: I think what’s important to remember, here, is how precipitously Tim Hortons’ reputation as a brand has tanked. Rather than being the result of a long, gradual decline, this happened virtually overnight, fueled by the sort of victim/villain narrative that provides for so much of our media diet these days.

What Tim Horton’s has, here, is a PR problem much more so than an organizational or product issue… with an RBI stock price decline to match. That, and not the value proposition, is where they need to start putting its keel back in the water.

READ: Government approves Tim Hortons-Burger King merger

It’s not even a case where a great bit of advertising will put people back in love with the brand. At this moment, I actually don’t see that. If I were them, I’d double down on the local sponsorship stuff and get busy with the next edition of Roll Up The Rim. These are the things that will reassure people they don’t need to reconsider their love for Tim’s. Advertising, in my mind, won’t put any points on the board right now, and could even be seen as disingenuous.

Tim Hortons. (Shutterstock)

So, the first thing I’d do is get out of the business news cycle by any means necessary. Stop talking to the press. Stop this pantomime of contrition. Stop acting like you’re in trouble. Deal with the franchisees from strength. Be quiet, let jackals like me move on to something more interesting, and buy yourself the time to get back in control of your agenda.

The next thing I’d do is make a priority of this pay-and-benefits issue. This was, in many ways, the match that lit the fire here, so it needs to be fixed. It’s also important, though, to remember that in a high-employment environment, attracting and keeping smiling, articulate people who call customers ‘hon’ is no longer something they can take for granted anyway. It’s also something that Starbucks, for example, is extremely good at. Finding ways to make Tims a great place to work, especially if the cost of doing so isn’t entirely borne by the franchisees, will do more good for the brand than almost anything I can think of.

The third priority would be to set a ‘back to fundamentals’ agenda for the product and store experience. I think that if Tim Horton’s makes a concerted effort to show that it understands and respects what made it great in the first place, it will calm both investors and customers alike. Over the last 20 years or so, both Starbucks and McDonald’s found themselves in similarly dire circumstances, and a common theme in their recoveries was a rediscovery of the core values of their brands, and of the defining customer experiences that had become lost in the fog of ‘innovation’.

Then, and only then, I’d think about fresh ideas. But make it a skunkworks initiative, a culture where new ideas have to earn the right to be added to Tim Horton’s story, rather than treating every new idea as an improvement, prima facie. This is an area where collaboration with the franchisees might be very healthy, extending perhaps even to the sort of grassroots innovation model that 3M was once famous for (in which employees, in that case, were compensated for spending a percentage of their time on pet product ideas of their own).

Just make sure it’s about making Tim Horton’s better and keeping it relevant, not ‘fixing’ it. Brand management is mostly story management these days, and of all the things Timmy’s has messed up over the last few months, that’s been the only potentially fatal one.