The great Canadian identity & the implications of a value-based strategy.

Oct 24, 2017 · 6 min read

Written by: Zach Klein

Poor citizens of marketing-land. Every time we scroll through a social feed, we’re reminded that brands are falling off the radar of cultural relevance. In an effort to connect with culture, many brands have adopted a value-based strategy. The approach follows a simple line of reasoning: Our company shares your values! We’re just like you! Buy into us!

In Canada, we’re noticing a lot of brands are attempting to close the gap between commerce and culture by aligning themselves with our national values. Given the political situation in the United States, there’s been a revival of national pride and an effort to differentiate ourselves from our Southern neighbour. Brands in Canada have quickly capitalized on this evolving trend, and there’s been a consistent stream of creative work, from a variety of categories, all aiming to align themselves with the Canadian ethos.

Here’s one example from Quaker to get us started.

In the Warm Welcome campaign, Quaker has done of nice job of aligning their product with a value-based approach to their marketing. It gets cold in Canada and Quaker is offering warmth in this creative on both a product and emotional level by tapping into what it means to be Canadian. The company has also pledged to donate up to $350K to provide coats to newcomers (but you gotta buy Quaker if you don’t want a newcomer to go cold). It’s a well-rounded campaign but does it go far enough to break through our culture’s apathy towards brands?

Given values play an important role in shaping & defining culture, it makes sense that brands have adopted value-based strategies to elevate themselves beyond the white noise that defines most brand communication. However, the simple act of committing to a value-based strategy isn’t enough to make the impact modern brands require. We analyzed the recent trend of creative work that embraces Canadian values to reveal four implications for brands seeking to make an impact in culture with a similar approach.

1. A Shortage Of Values

It’s no coincidence that you have a number of brands, from a range of categories, simultaneously embracing Canadian values. We mentioned the rise of Canadian nationalism in the introduction, but there are other forces at play. Most notably, compatibility. After all, to qualify as a suitable value for the purpose of marketing, a value must adhere to a number of criteria. At the most basic level, the value must reflect positively on the brand, the value must have a broad enough appeal to resonate with a large audience and the value must have some correlation to the company, product or service.

To be adopted by a brand, a given value must check a number of boxes and consequently, many values don’t pass the test. This limited supply of qualified values coupled with high demand results in a shortage of values available to brands. This shortage of values is an important ramification because there’s a lot of cross-category competition for a limited set of associations. As a result, you have multiple brands vying to distinguish themselves in culture by adopting a ubiquitous value-based proposition. Hence, Chevrolet, Uniqlo, Quaker and Smirnoff all circling around Canadian values.

This challenge of distinction is further exacerbated when you look at the creative executions highlighted in this article. It’s interesting that all four brands, from four different categories all share a similar look and feel. The creative seems to be a natural extension of the strategic approach — a problem if you are competing for attention in a highly competitive value-space.

2. You’re making a political statement

Political polarization isn’t limited to the United States and many of the values we consider core to the Canadian identity (diversity, inclusion) are not universally embraced by Canadians. When you look beyond the political biases of our industry, you may discover that Canadians aren’t as aligned on our national values as you may think. Take the recent work from Chevrolet on The Canadian Dream. The creative is beautiful and moving but one look at the comments section and it’s clear the message is political and polarizing.

Putting your own political beliefs aside, it’s important to recognize that in an effort to connect with a broad audience, you may in fact be alienating a subsection of the market that is important to your business for a questionable upside. Even in Canada, a value-based approach that embraces national values is a political statement and this comes with an inherent set of risks. In the case of Chevrolet, some Canadians were upset because a brand was making a political statement while others disagree with the values being celebrated. Eyes wide open.

Arguably, a brand may take a political stance because the company truly believes in advocating for a given cause or political belief. If this is the case, take advantage of the polarization and go all in. Identify the enemy, rally supporters and make the changes you feel necessary. After all, fuelling tension is an effective way of sparking change in culture.

3. You Can’t Fake The Funk

After nearly a decade of our industry talking about transparency, brands are still learning to live by the values they tout in their advertising. Value-based messaging that isn’t backed up by value-based behaviour is an invitation for criticism and possibly worse. Take Uniqlo for example. The creative does a nice job of showcasing Canadian values, making Canadians look good in the process and simultaneously providing new Canadians with a positive experience. A virtuous cycle of Canadiana.

Although the creative had good vibes and was well received, it also triggered an array of negative comment, some accusing the company of embracing policies that counter Canadian values (I.E. labour rights, environmental concerns related to fast fashion) while others expressed beef for highjacking Canadian culture for self-serving purposes of marketing.

The Good. The Bad

In today’s world, you can’t fake the funk. If your company isn’t living by the values you’re promoting; you’re at risk of getting called out. Arguably, the backlash for Uniqlo was minimal but the brand took a risk promoting Canadian values that aren’t core to their business. The price of backlash and the risk associated with pissing off cultural communities is high enough now that brands and marketers need to tread more carefully. Start internally, work externally. You need to earn your right to associate your brand with Canadian values otherwise it reeks of a PR marketing ploy.

4. Go Beyond The Mirror

When it comes to activating a value-based strategy, we’d argue that many brands fail to unlock the potential of this strategic approach. Too often, a value-based strategy operates on the belief that reflecting culture is an effective way of becoming a part of culture. Brands fail to make an impact because the creative merely echoes cultural values through the lens of a compelling narrative. Simply put, mirroring culture is not enough.

For a brand to become culturally relevant, they must elevate their role to become agents of culture. An agent of culture is an active participant in culture, meaning they reinterpret existing values to create new meaning, they create tangible outcomes that benefit multiple parties (not just the brand) and they provide a platform that leads to new behaviours. All of the Cannes Lion winners in the category of Creative Effectiveness share at least one of these qualities.

A brand narrative that shapes culture by encouraging people to questions their behaviour.

Arguably, advertising as a medium is limited in its capacity to elevate brands to become agents of culture. And you’d be right. Brands need to go beyond the storytelling medium with the expectation that not all company efforts are suited for storytelling.

In closing…

A value-based strategy has proven to be an effective way to stop brands from sliding into the realm of cultural apathy. But nothing comes easy. Before you embark on a value-based strategy, first to realize there’s a lot of competition for a limited number of values — the number of brands vying to associate themselves with Canadian identity is one example highlighting the shortage of values. Whether you’re aligning yourself with a national identity or another set of values, we believe you must distinguish yourself by pushing your ideas beyond passive “me too” creative and set your sight on shaping the culture that influences how people think, feel and behave.

Agree? Disagree? Got a different perspective? Got something to add? Holler.

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We are a boutique brand strategy & ideas company based in Toronto. We help brands grow by making them better agents of culture.