Selling Canada

How companies are finding new success marketing a suddenly hot Canadian brand abroad


Selling Canada

Irwin Fedriansyah/AP; NASA/Courtesy of Apercu; Adrian Wyld/CP

Doughnuts, hockey, Mounties and self-deprecating gags are effective at branding Canada to Canadians. But globally, these stereotypes just don’t translate. Some of the strongest national brands and companies, like BlackBerry maker Research In Motion, aren’t largely known to be Canadian outside our borders, and there was only so long the country’s space reputation could rest on the shoulder of the Canadarm. Just a quarter of Canadian business people surveyed by Maclean’s and Canadian Business as part of the Business without Borders initiative last year felt there was a distinct brand surrounding Canadian companies and products abroad.

Over the past few years, though, Canada’s image has matured, and some sectors are developing new strategies to communicate the country’s strengths. That doesn’t mean beating a patriotic drum. Many companies that have found success abroad did so by adopting the country’s “post-nationalist” attributes, and blending in with the places they do business.

The Great Recession has proven a big factor helping forge Canada’s brand. While the country was hit by the economic collapse, it wasn’t hit as hard as the U.S. or Europe. As our banks required no bailouts and our dollar strengthened, other countries looked to Canada’s economic policies for answers. And the more foreigners ask why Canada is different, the more it gives businesses a chance to explain and define Canada as a country and a brand.

Kevin Lynch, vice-chair at BMO Financial Group, says that this change has been a huge advantage for Canadian financial institutions expanding abroad, but he believes that putting the focus on Canada’s stability could help any business gain traction. “If you’re in India and you want to establish a longer-term relationship with a company, you’d like to know that the company comes from a country with solid finances, good technology and a stable workforce and government,” he says. “That’s going to be reassuring.”

Lynch, a former clerk of the Privy Council, says that emphasizing Canada’s strengths is an important part of BMO’s sales pitch overseas. “We have a presentation that talks about BMO, but it talks about Canada as well. Part of promoting the bank over here is making sure that people understand that Canada has a strong economy and a solid banking system, and we’re part of that.”

Selling Canada

Courtesy of the Candian Tourism Commission

If the recession moved Canada to centre stage, the 2010 Vancouver Olympics was the spotlight. FutureBrand, a brand consulting firm based out of New York, ranks national brands in an annual Country Brand Index. From 12th place in 2006, Canada moved up to second in 2008 and 2009, and reached the coveted top spot last year. FutureBrand attributes part of that rise to the Games, which showed how competitive Canadians can be. These are good themes for companies expanding abroad to keep in mind. “We’re a new country. We’re young. And we’re changing so rapidly,” says Michael Adams, founder of the Environics Institute for Survey Research and noted author on social change in North America.

For their part, Canadian business people believe the world is getting a better idea of what we have to offer. As part of our Business without Borders initiative in partnership with HSBC, Maclean’s and Canadian Business polled 833 business­people on the subject of Canada’s brand. Seventy-eight per cent of respondents believed the U.S. perceives Canada’s brand the most favourably out of all the world’s countries. They indicated that the opinions of Western Europe, and Australia and New Zealand followed closely with 70 per cent and 68 per cent positive response respectively. Canadian companies are even well regarded in China, 63 per cent said.

The Canadian Tourism Commission, a federal Crown corporation, certainly believes it can foster closer ties with China with its new “Say hello to Canada” campaign. Canada was granted approved destination status by the Chinese government last June, allowing the CTC to market Canada there for the first time. In mid-February, the CTC started a large advertising campaign in China with the goal of coaxing an extra $300 million out of Chinese tourists each year by 2015.

Multiculturalism is a major asset to the Canadian brand, according to the respondents of the Business without Borders study—40 per cent strongly agreed it is a major competitive advantage when conducting business internationally. One participant described the Canadian brand as “a positive, not discriminatory brand that represents the views of this country.”

Jeannette Hanna, branding expert and co-author of Ikonica: A Field Guide to Canada’s Brandscape, believes that Canada’s quiet acceptance and multiculturalism give the country a unique advantage on the global stage: the ability to blend in. Instead of being “bland” (as a few survey respondents described it), the Canadian brand that travels best may instead embody a worldliness that few can place. It’s seen as a trustworthy traveller. “Cirque de Soleil is a good example of this because people outside of Canada don’t necessarily know it’s a Canadian brand,” says Hanna. “They know it’s a great brand, though.” The same can be said of Four Seasons Hotels. The brand relies on its international ethos, and in each country it sets up shop, it seems to belong.

That ability to show up in a new country without all the baggage that might be associated with an American or European company is what puts expansion-minded firms in a good spot. These companies can leverage this “worldly traveller” mentality and focus on adapting their brand for the target market. “In the United Kingdom, people think of McCain Foods as a U.K. company, and in India they think of it as an Indian company,” says Hanna. “That ability to ‘when in Rome, act like a Roman’—that chameleon quality—is a huge advantage.”

Using that advantage to build sales worldwide means taking a subtle approach to branding the country. It means representing and selling Canada as the country that doesn’t use its brand or ideologies to conquer the world, but rather to enhance the lives of its global clients.