Four Communications Takeaways from Canadian CEOs

Multinational companies looking to establish roots in new places must do so strategically or risk damaging their brand credibility and taking a financial loss. The demise of Target Canada in 2015 thoroughly demonstrated the differences between the Canadian and American market.

At this year’s World PR Forum, Canadian CEOs from McDonald’s Canada, Ford Canada and TIFF discussed the challenges and rewards of being a part of a larger, international brand. Here are some of their thoughts on branding and communications in Canada that PR professionals can apply to their own organization.


Marketing and PR should no longer work in silos

When asked by moderator Gordon McIvor about the relationship between marketing and PR in their organizations, all three CEO’s denounced any barriers between the two. “Public Relations is a part of all business initiatives and strategies, including branding,” said John E. Betts, CEO of McDonald’s Canada. “At TIFF, digital, marketing, creative and communications are all one team,” said Piers Handling, CEO.

This recent development allows TIFF to provide clarity across all of their messaging, which is particularly important as they branch out to other cinematic markets. Dianne Craig, Ford Canada’s President and CEO, explained how storytelling is at the heart of their branding and messaging, so naturally, “marketing and PR are joined at the hip.”


Canadian and American markets should be branded differently

As we’ve seen many times, American brands don’t always work in Canadian markets, but it’s worth investing in doing it well. Corporate messaging that transcends cultural borders with simple concepts can help build your global brand. Ford Canada’s messaging is all about “ingenuity, attainability and people serving people,” which can be applied across many national markets. However, they are mindful of the differences between U.S and Canadian consumers and this is reflected in the voiceovers they choose for commercials. The voiceover for American Ford commercials was a strong, direct & husky male voice, which did not test well in Canada. The Canadian voiceover is more jovial and upbeat, which came across as less aggressive, more personable and sufficiently humble – qualities more acceptable to the Canadian market. McDonald’s Canadian branding is unique in that it has the only altered logo in all global markets (check out that maple leaf). Canadians react positively to this attention to detail.


Embrace cultural differences rather than be challenged by them

When entering a new international market, obstacles will certainly arise. As TIFF looks to expand its reach internationally, a small marketing budget has been their challenge. “The media provided a lot of early free marketing for TIFF,” said Handling. Earned media opportunities garnered from their PR efforts helped propel TIFF, a non-profit organization, to international recognition. Coupled with corporate sponsorships and local Toronto pride, the TIFF branding of cinematic excellence has been able to transcend cultural borders. TIFF continuously embraces the cultural differences that exist within its own host city, and through PR-driven partnerships has been able to bring films from across the world to Toronto audiences.

For Ford Canada, challenges existed in the global assets they sought to use in multiple markets. Craig stressed the importance of having these assets including b-roll footage, voiceover soundbites, print and online advertisements and social media images and posts, but stressed that they must be leveraged in a way that is meaningful to the Canadian market. For example, many of Ford Canada’s media assets on Twitter display their vehicles in known Canadian destinations:





This helps Canadian consumers visualize their car on their roads and not in an unfamiliar place.

Proximity to the United States, along with coast-to-coast messaging and a media spill across the border are challenges that McDonald’s Canada has had to face head-on in order to succeed in the Canadian market. Being close enough to the US border to see US advertising meant that Canadian customers expected similar menu items. Beyond regional menu differences, Canadians just don’t being marketed to like Americans; Canadians are proud of their cultural differences and want to consume products that reflect those differences. For example, U.S. McDonald’s locations do not carry poutine on their menus, whereas Canadian locations will. In fact, McDonalds carries many different products across the world, which reflect that native country’s cuisine.

Attention to cultural differences can help brands persevere in a Canadian marketplace that’s smaller and more saturated than its U.S counterpart. 



Don’t forget Quebec
All three CEO’s recognized the importance of the Quebec market when engaging in Canadian branding. It isn’t simply a matter of producing French-language marketing material. “You just can’t translate culture,” said Betts. For McDonald’s, the Quebec restaurant experiences differs from other parts of the country; the meal is more of an experience. McDonalds in Quebec is less fast food counter and more upscale dining, with modern finishes and more comfortable seating. This design style has started to spread to other major cities in Canada, like Toronto and Vancouver.   

Building relationships within a community is paramount to your brand’s success. TIFF organizers continue to nurture relationships with filmmakers in Montreal. “We needed to show them they weren’t considered second place to us,” said Handling. Craig understands the importance of the local dealer’s trust and to nurture this relationship, Ford Canada has partnered with many cultural events in Quebec.



What other factors should be considered when branding in Canada and in other international markets? Tell us in the comments below, or tweet us @CNWGroup. To learn more about connecting PR strategies and tactics to corporate strategy, please download our FREE whitepaper today. 

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