Tim Hortons and the Canadian soul.
Today is a holiday in both Canada and the United States, so it seems an auspicious time to comment on the impending merger between Tim Hortons and Burger King, a deal that has some Canadians expressing concerns over potential changes to a chain that many have come to regard as an iconic national institution, while some Americans grouse that Miami-based Burger King is effectively moving offshore to avoid paying taxes in the United States. What interests me about all of this is the reflection that the merger/buyout has prompted regarding the place of Tim Hortons in many Canadians' collective self-understanding. The best thing I've read on point comes from Toronto Star writer Amy Dempsey, who begins her consideration of the particular place of Tim Hortons in the national psyche with a childhood memory:
My little brother stood in the middle of the kitchen swinging a giant box of Timbits by its flimsy cardboard handle.As Dempsey suggests, Tim Hortons has been so successful because the company has deftly branded itself as an important part of the Canada's social and cultural fabric, finding ways to link itself with enduring values and presenting a distinctively Canadian image at a time when globalization seems to augur an erosion of national identity:
Danny was 7, skinny and, to me, annoying. He would get away with things I couldn't, like messing around with a 40-pack of itty-bitty doughnuts while my mother did the dishes, my father put away leftovers and I did my homework at the kitchen table.
One minute my brother was swinging the box with a big smirk on his face. Then the handle ripped and the Timbits sailed high above his head and somersaulted across our Cape Breton kitchen, landing with a cannonball splash in the dishwater.
"Jesus!" my mother screamed. She was covered in Palmolive suds. There was a moment of silence, then we all laughed for a long time.
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My family's flying doughnuts story may not be as wholesome as the ubiquitous great Canadian hockey road-trip tale, but the story itself, and the way it leaves me with a nostalgic lump in my throat and a hankering for a honey-glazed Timbit, is exactly what has made the company so successful. Tim Hortons has quietly inserted itself into our history. It has become a part of our daily-life stories, but more importantly our collective national story. It has succeeded in making Canadians believe that Tim Hortons is Who We Are, and that we are duty-bound to hold it dear.
"To say you don't like Tim Hortons is blasphemous," says Peter Hodgins, an assistant professor of Canadian studies at Carleton University.
No one wants to hear from the silent minority of citizens who believe Tim Hortons coffee tastes like boiled tap water strained through a handful of soil from a garden that has recently been sprayed by a skunk. Or from those who argue the brew requires heavy doses of sugar and cream to make it even remotely palatable, and then isn't it just a hot milkshake? Only a traitor would dare to suggest Tim Hortons is the Nickelback of Canadian coffee shops — popular with the masses, but ughhhhhh, really?
The identity crisis Canadians have suffered since Confederation has helped Tim Hortons achieved its emblematic status. We are keen to latch on to anything that helps define us, particularly in a post-1980s globalized world in which our feelings of national culture have become entwined with our acts of consumption. Tim Hortons has seized on that, but not in an aggressive way. It has become a part of us without making demands.For an example of one of those Tim Hortons "True Stories," take a look at the below commercial featuring three generations of a Chinese-Canadian family - a commercial in which Tim Hortons coffee plays an apparently incidental role, even though that product is ostensibly what is being promoted:
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"There are other companies that try to attach themselves to Canadian nationalism, but I've never seen a company do it as well," says Patricia Cormack, a professor of sociology at St. Francis Xavier University whose book, Desiring Canada, written with James Cosgrave, includes a chapter devoted to Tim Hortons.
"They're extremely careful about how to link the everyday with real deep emotional feelings that connect at some level with the nation, the idea of being a Canadian," she says. "It's not just throwing around a bunch of stupid signifiers like hockey sticks and beavers."
So while one company might slap a puck on a T-shirt, Tim Hortons has aligned itself not only with the game of hockey but with bigger ideas attached to it — community, sacrifice, childhood. The "True Stories" commercials were full of pathos and ambiguity. Remember the one where the immigrant family is welcomed to Canada by the dad at the airport? Remember the one about the golden retriever, Sammi, who went to Tim Hortons for her owner and carried the bag back in her mouth?
The same emotional strings are tugged with the company's charitable work, most notably the Timbits youth sports program, a community initiative that has furthered the company’s brand association with hockey. Who can resist the sight of a 5-year-old stumbling across the ice in a Tim Bits jersey? Not me. Tears are pooling in my eyes right now, and I am not being sarcastic.
Is this an example of shameless tugging at the heartstrings by a large corporation out to make a buck? Undoubtedly, but by my lights it's also brilliantly well-done. For more on the underlying issues, read the rest of Amy Dempsey's piece in the Star. AMDG.