TORONTO – Tim Hortons is getting a crash course in brand association as it tries to extinguish the controversy over a decision to pull ads for pipeline giant Enbridge.
The company has found itself caught in a tug-of-war of loyalties between environmentalists and oil industry supporters after an online campaign to yank Enbridge commercials from its in-store Tims TV ignited a fury.
Richard Bingham, a marketing professor at Humber College in Toronto, says Tim Hortons should have seen this coming.
“Part of what Tims has striven for is the sort of brand that is not going to get drawn into controversy, not going to get drawn into politics, and is really careful at staying away from any potential pain points,” he said.
“Anything that gets beyond a person handing you your coffee and you sitting down to enjoy it … anything that gets into a political realm is something they don’t want to touch with a barge pole.”
For years, the coffee and doughnut chain has been extraordinarily protective of its brand, mostly associating itself only with community events and charities. But the introduction of digital screens into the retail industry opened up a new revenue stream for the company last year.
Tims began quietly experimenting with Tims TV last spring before rolling out the screens at restaurants across the country. The company described Tims TV as its own version of a community space, serving as a home for the latest news, weather, local events and branded videos.
But the main thrust of the concept was to pocket revenues from what’s essentially a billboard inside the restaurants. Advertisers could buy airtime on Tims TV in the looping rotation of content.
Last year, Tim Hortons said the channel, a partnership with the media division of Cineplex, would advertise “complementary” brands like food and automotive companies, but Tims TV has also left the impression with some customers that the company endorses whatever is shown on the screens.
Chris Gibbs, a hospitality professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, said retailers need to understand consumers have different expectations of media companies, which creates a potentially dangerous mixture when the two industries combine.
“It was the perfect storm,” he said. “As the economy in Alberta dips and people are out of jobs, they’re going to get more protective of the oilsands industry and the jobs it creates. If this would’ve happened at the height of oil (prices), I don’t think you would’ve seen this reaction.”
Gibbs expects Tim Hortons will take a more cautious approach to in-store advertisements in the future, and the Enbridge controversy will serve as a case study in crisis management.
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