There is no question that Tim Hortons is a marketing machine – from “Ice Capps” to “Double Doubles” to “Timbits”, the brand has transformed itself into a Canadian icon, a piece of the country’s fabric and psyche that neatly packages up the unusual, albeit common traits that define Canadians as a cold-enduring, hockey-playing, loon call-inspired, coffee-loving collective.
Which is why in no small part the brand’s more recent public relations fiascos have been all the more difficult for its loyal consumer base to comprehend, let alone rise up against.
The fact is, Tim Hortons has gone downhill – big time.
Too many stores, too-long line-ups and drive-throughs, too many disparate products, leaky coffee cups – the issue is that even at a discount, the product and service is lacking and not uniform. It is more of a surprise to walk into a clean, friendly Tim Hortons and receive quality merchandise than it is common.
One could argue that Tim Hortons started losing the Canadian public’s faith in 2014, when it was sold to non-Canadian private equity giant 3G Capital, in partnership with U.S.-based Berkshire Hathaway - right around the same time the beloved Heinz Ketchup factory, the pride of Leamington Ontario, was closed and its operations moved stateside under the orders of those same new owners.
While Canadian coffee lovers never quite staged a social revolution on the level of the “Ketchup wars” there was a definitive air of disappointment that “Canada’s coffee” wasn’t owned by a Canadian company anymore. More importantly, a divergence began between what Tim Hortons said it was, and what the public actually perceived it to be: A not-so-great discount food chain with dirty stores, yucky bathrooms and mediocre customer service.
A large part of the problem is what the public doesn’t know – that Restaurant Brands and its franchisees have been fighting with each other, mostly over cost-cutting measures implemented by the company which franchise owners squarely blame for the slide in quality and service.
The spat has developed into a formal complaint to the Government of Canada from a group representing roughly half of the Canadian franchise owners, and a separate lawsuit filed by several U.S. Tim Hortons franchise owners against the company for mismanagement.
All the while, Tim Hortons marketing machine has continued to roll on like a perpetual Roll Up The Rim To Win contest – and continued to contradict what the brand says it is, and what it actually is.
Like marketing, public relations is the professional maintenance of a favorable public image – emphasis on favorable. No one wants to get on a soap box or worse, admit to a large audience that they’ve done something wrong or fallen down on the job.
In reality, though, public relations is much more nuanced: It is about being upfront with your key target audiences and conveying messages that, right or wrong, good or bad, informs them – and by extension provides them with a more complete and accurate picture that an ad or commercial simply can’t do.
Indeed, public relations in its core form addresses the state of the relationship between the public and a company.
This is where Tim Hortons has failed, miserably. It has continued to maintain that it is the collective bedrock of Canadian society, the supporter of all things Canada represents – and that it feeds our collective psyche and soul – well, and at a reasonable price.
The reality, however, is that the public has seen, heard and experienced the exact opposite – and for some time. Social media in particular has made plain how customers really feel about Tim’s: Recent ad campaigns surrounding ideas of “being Canadian” – and how Tim Hortons fits into that idea – have been scorned by the Tweeting and Facebooking masses.
Mouth Wide Shut
For PR professionals in particular, the solution is obvious, and has been for some time: Stop ignoring the issues and pretending everything is fine and address them head- on, starting with talking to your key target audience.
Canadians know by now that the brown, slippery tiles and fly-infested donut display cases need an overhaul, that the bathrooms aren’t going to be pretty, and the odds of a pretty, smiling, fresh face handing us our steaming cup of Joe are low.
What they don’t know is that Tim Hortons is trying to do something about it. The company has been negotiating with its franchisees to overhaul and upgrade stores, better train workers and generally improve the customer experience.
Enter RBI President Alex Macedo, who recently, finally, and likely with more than a bit of pressure from his PR team, had a sit-down with Canadian Press. “We could have done a few things better. So much has been said, and it is difficult to break from the clutter, but we have decided to communicate better.”
To be sure, it can be argued that Tim Hortons has been unduly tarred and feathered – that the product, the service, the experience and the brand continues to exceed expectations. And in many cases, it likely has and continues to do so.
But like it or not, perception, particularly in the digital age, is reality. While an interview with Canadian Press is a good start, some other obvious efforts could and should include more interaction with other media, op-Eds, town halls and generally more dialogue with the public – addressing key perceptions, issues and concerns head- on, and communicating them.
Like McDonald’s and Starbucks, the likelihood of Tim Hortons facing all-out extinction is remote. Canadians are a loyal bunch, and the company and its franchisees will right the cart again. The process would undoubtedly begin a lot sooner if the company’s owners stepped up their game on the PR front.
If nothing else, Tim Hortons has done the public relations world a service: by proving the value of honest and true dialogue, interaction and messaging that oftentimes marketing and advertising alone simply can’t convey.