28 April 2010

Canada and its consumers

TORONTO -- In my international role it’s a privilege to work with my clients and colleagues in Canada. They have an amazing operation here. It’s a fascinating country with interesting consumers.

Sadly, Canada is a gigantic blind spot for most American business executives. Part of this is cultural since most Americans don’t know much about Canada at all. Corporate culture does little to change that. The Canada strategy of too many companies is to treat it as part of the United States: ship them the same products, air the same advertising, and let them try selling it all to the three retailers who dominate the trade.

To be sure, this strategy has its benefits, most of them related to cost efficiency. One of our clients generally follows this strategy with some success. Yet beyond the U.S.-made TV commercials for U.S. brands we also create many Canada-specific programs in retail, promotion and digital.

These efforts are justified by the opportunity we find in such a vibrant consumer population. There are many sources available where you can gain a deep understanding of Canadian consumers so we won’t try to duplicate them. Instead, here are some personal observations, vetted just a bit at dinner last night with my agency colleagues.

Mosaic, not melting pot

The first thing that strikes you about Canada is its cultural diversity. Immigration has been rich and abundant, particularly from China and South Asia. There is still strong European immigration, too. My friends distinguished between the U.S. melting pot and the Canadian mosaic; that is, American immigrants tend to assimilate while Canadian immigrants maintain stronger senses of national identity. On that point...

Quebec is not Canada

French Canada is an amazing, confounding jewel. Chicago-to-Toronto feels like a domestic flight while Toronto-to-Montreal feels like an international flight. It’s not just that Quebecois speak French almost exclusively. The customs, daily routines and value systems are unique to Quebec. You could say it is “European” but that would miss how unique Quebec really is. That's saying something, too, since Canada in general is unique...

Canada is not the U.S.

My question at dinner: What makes Canada unique? The first response was: “You mean versus the U.S.?” No, what makes Canada unique. Canadians, a very polite bunch, bristle at comparisons to the U.S. because a lot of Americans and other foreigners see only the similarities. There are indeed vast differences between the two societies – chronicled in the Canadian analysis Fire and Ice – even while they share a strong friendship and a 5,525-mile border.


This one didn’t get much traction at the dinner table but I’m sticking by my view. Through the people I meet, the stores I shop and the marketing I see, there is a resilient resourcefulness to Canadians. Perhaps it’s left over from the frontier era or it comes from all the new immigrants. Maybe it’s the spirit of cooperation we see in every meeting. My clients and colleagues move their business forward in a distinctly Canadian way, even while they also follow the marketing plans sent up by their American counterparts.

They’re an amazing bunch of people. I’m eager to come back and see them soon.


  1. A colleague just sent me this 1-minute spot called "Rant" for Molson in Canada. Worth watching.


  2. I thought canada was the 51st state with an accent

  3. "51st state with an accent." You could be describing New York City.