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By Richard Wang, Analyst

On March 29, we celebrated the 17th annual Level5 Day.  We use this day every year as an opportunity to reflect on the history of Level5 – how we got here and the culture we’ve built along the way.

L5 was founded in 2002 by David Kincaid to shift the paradigm of how brands are treated in the business world, demonstrating that they are not just marketing tools but important CEO-level strategic assets. From K-Inc Marketing Management to Level5 Strategic Brand Advisors to Level5 Strategy Group, the firm has undergone a steady evolution over the years.  Today, we are an end-to-end strategy firm specializing in developing brand-guided strategy to understand what drives customers to act – we embed this expertise throughout our process, all the way from research and insights through to implementation and organizational transformation.

We kicked off the celebration with L5 trivia – congratulations to Director Rob Gizzie for earning the prestigious title of Level5 Historian!

To follow that up, we gave out some “most likely to…” awards through popular vote, asking important questions on individuality that prompted many animated discussions.

The rest of the afternoon was filled with food, drinks, and team bonding activities. All in all, we enjoyed breaking bread together over a well-deserved break from our daily work. But beyond that, Level5 Day 2019 was a way for us to celebrate our people, our history, and our culture. This event has reminded us to appreciate what we’ve built and set our sights high while we continue to grow into the future.

On behalf of the L5 team, we can’t wait to see what our 18th year has to offer.

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By: Garnet Tosswill, Senior Consultant 

Some believe that building a strategy requires an independent leader who sets direction despite uncertainty. While there’s some truth in this, strategists must lead – as well as listen to others.  

Listening is key because leaders need information from the “ground troops” while managers must know their thoughts are being heard. Equally, everyone must be looped-in about the organization’s alignment with the selected strategy.

Leading is important because it rises above politics without the loss of strategic focus. It fosters decision-ownership that translates into strategy which ensures objectives are routinely met. A self-reinforcing strategy organically prunes “stray limbs” or pet projects that don’t underpin the overall objective.

But how do strategists balance these two seemingly divergent requirements?


Unpacking BREXIT to illustrate why leading and listening leads to crafting executable strategies

Following the UK’s vote to leave the EU, Theresa May became the Prime Minister tasked with orchestrating and managing the execution of the country’s divorce from the bloc.

Although she was bold in her vision to deliver this major strategic shift, May missed several opportunities to listen to the plan’s integral stakeholders:

  • A petition for a second referendum attracted over four million signatures but was rejected by the government on July 9th, 2018.
  • The House of Commons voted 432 to 202 against her proposed terms for exiting the EU on January 15th
  • A motion of no confidence tabled by the opposition was narrowly rejected by 325 votes to 306.
  • Adjustments to the original terms on March 12 were voted against 391 to 242.

Given party lines, May might not have had much of a choice to reconsider. Nonetheless, strategists can learn from this case study.

Successful listening in strategic planning

To find the sweet spot between leading and listening, strategists should establish and communicate a clear blueprint for undertaking the strategic planning process. This will ensure its key stakeholders feel ownership of the process that should:

  • Outline the plan’s progression from vision to implementation. Doing so informs participants about ground rules for engagement and offers opportunities to share critical information from the “boots on the ground” perspective.
  • Be iterative in the plan’s design. Segmenting the plan promotes a climate of input sharing, and removes the fear of saying something that might be locked into the plan without the possibility of later change.
  • Respect the chain of command. Content should be shared with those who will need to execute the plan and approved by the C-suite, followed by the board.

Building a tight strategy and the leadership behind it

Strategists should ask challenging questions to help the planning team understand why some inputs shouldn’t be included in the strategy. They should also:

  • Listen carefully before taking action. Consolidate findings into themes and explain why certain concepts didn’t make the cut.
  • Drive progress through process. Review a decision to ensure it makes sense but don’t fall prey to analysis paralysis.
  • Capitalize on the permission to iterate. It often takes more than one attempt to get it right


Strategists are more likely to build a plan poised to meet strategic objectives if they balance the need to act as active listeners and decision makers. Getting the right balance is also vital to facilitating strategic alignment that is necessary for the plan’s successful execution.

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By Matt Kelly, Managing Partner


Many of you will remember this famous ad campaign that built the Wendy’s restaurant brand.   But with Burger King’s recent announcement that it will soon be introducing a meatless burger, it’s a question we all might be asking in the years to come. As widely reported yesterday, Impossible Foods will soon add Burger King to the 5000 restaurants in the USA that serve its plant-based burger, catapulting a potentially disruptive new technology into the mainstream. In Canada, A&W has been very successful; its Beyond Meat Burger repeatedly sells out. A&W joins over 38000 retail locations across 120 nations that sell the Beyond Meat Burger. I’ve had one and it’s terrific!


The pending disruption has noble roots. If the average North American replaced just one beef burger a week, it would be the equivalent to removing 12 million air polluting cars from the road. In fact, according to Politico, if cows were a nation, they would rank just behind the USA and China in harmful emissions.  It’s also such a simple way for BK to demonstrate leadership in innovation and differentiate its brand. This move provides a newsworthy lift in same store sales with no new equipment or operating procedures and no major supply chain or organizational transformation requirements, just a simple addition to its menu requiring marketing support.


The key to the burger’s success is simple. Ensure the product quality is excellent – the new BK burger is apparently indistinguishable from its beef counterpart. Stay on brand – it’s all about taste and the grilling process. If you are confident in its consumer acceptance – invest heavily to drive trial, repeat will follow. I suspect margins are not as good as the beef burger, so driving incrementality will be key.


What I learned at 13 years with Yum Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell) is new products will inevitably fail unless they: taste great, reinforce your brand DNA (at KFC if it wasn’t ‘finger lickin good’, i.e. breaded and deep fried, it struggled), deliver great margins, and/or are heavily supported with effective marketing. If enough of these requisites are met, the new product will generate happy restaurant operators.


McDonald’s, Walmart, and General Mills are just a few of the global juggernauts demanding that their suppliers cut their emissions and improve their environmental footprint. Building environmental sustainability, and with it differentiation, into your brand and business plans will be a category ante. But in the near term, it can also offer companies like Burger King significant first mover advantage.

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In this episode  of the Strategy Lounge, we will be talking about the cannabis sector and the realities facing this new, yet increasingly competitive industry

In a newly regulated industry whose players are still nascent – with little revenue and unproven operations – companies need a strong business strategy to survive long after the initial enthusiasm peters out.

On October 17th, 2018, Canada legalized recreational cannabis use, bringing a black market worth an estimated $5.71 billion into the regulated confines of a tax-generating industry.

This sector is undergoing what all fledgling enterprises experience in the first 12-36 months of existence: an intensely competitive phase that will culminate with a clear distinction between winners and losers.

Industry players are seeking ways to stay on the winning side of this equation by:

  • Building a brand within the restrictions of this tightly regulated market.
  • Developing a strong customer experience.
  • Overcoming the stigma associated with cannabis use.


A shift is upon us

Established majors, such as Constellation Brands, Molson Coors and Altria, have already moved into the market, raising the bar for the whole industry.

It’s a sign of a shifting landscape towards a more mature stage – the capacity of Canada’s top 10 licensed producers alone is projected to double the country’s demand by 2020.

Without partnerships to protect supply and demand, companies won’t be able to lure investors and please the market.


Lack of export opportunities

In the U.S., cannabis is still illegal while other global markets are already establishing domestic production to meet local demand.

This is placing greater emphasis on revenue growth, supply agreements, partnerships and IP ownership with consolidation for strategic purposes as a likely end game.


We’ve seen this before

A financially speculative business climate and turbulence were rampant during the dot-com bubble. Roughly 50% of dot-com firms survived those early days, often because companies ran out of cash.

More relevantly, we’re witnessing a similar scenario play out in those U.S. states where adult-use cannabis has been legalized.


So, what’s next?

Plotting a successful course of action in a vertically segregated retail environment will demand several key measures, including:

  • Building a purposeful differentiation from the pack with a deep understanding of and focus on the customer.
  • Establishing and communicating your value proposition.
  • Strategically managing your value chain.
  • Fostering partnerships and supply agreements.
  • Avoiding commoditization by establishing the IP, competencies and core processes.
  • Keeping an eye on global markets for opportunities to establish first-mover advantage.


To read the perspective paper in full and find out how LEVEL5 can help during this transient time, click here.

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By Hua Yu, Managing Partner and Sylvia Palka Melo, Director

The term “brand” is one of the most misunderstood assets within an organization. Many of the brand’s custodians – company managers – are often misinformed about the brand’s core values and how they relate to human capital.

At LEVEL5, we define brand as the value of a promise consistently kept™.

The way your company operates in the marketplace and workplace reflects its brand principles that can and should be used to manage all aspects of an organization.

So, How Does Brand Impact Talent?

Brand values can attract the right talent, as those candidates who share your organization’s values will naturally gravitate towards it.

By normalizing employees in the right behaviours that reflect your brand promise, your organization’s success can organically take care of itself. This is because your brand promise dictates hiring (and firing), training methods and behaviours required to create the desired customer experience.

And How Do You Use Your Brand to Attract and Hire Brand Talent?

Clarify your vision and combine it with your organization’s values. This will help translate the brand into hiring criteria and convert those values into competencies that align with the brand. 

Both are great fuel for helping managers develop questions that determine if candidates embody those values and have those competencies.

How Do You Use Your Brand to Develop and Nurture That Talent?

This is achieved by creating an “academy culture” with structure and processes that facilitate formal coaching.

Training academies support employees in delivering the brand and its promise in the market; and they decipher the brand into metrics towards the promotion of common values that enable employees to prioritize and make better decisions.

And Finally How Do You Use Your Brand to Assess and Reward Talent?

Employees generate value in a number of ways that doesn’t necessarily have a direct relationship to the bottom line.

For this reason, employees should be evaluated holistically by managers and peers to assess the employee’s detailed contribution and reinforce the brand’s values that improve the company’s long-term welfare.


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By: Hua Yu, Managing Partner, Frank Zhang, Senior Consultant, & Richard Wang, Analyst

When Tim Hortons opened its first Chinese store in Shanghai on February 26, 2019, it received an incredible warm welcome from Chinese consumers – some lined up for 18 hours just to try a Tim Hortons coffee.

Thinking back to when Tim Hortons first announced its expansion to China in July 2018, many Chinese Canadians were excited to see another Canadian brand enter the Chinese market and shared the news with their friends and family in China. As a result, Tim Hortons, a brand with low awareness in China, suddenly attracted significant attention from Chinese consumers. As the chart below illustrates, online search volumes peaked in July 2018 when the expansion was first announced, and again in February 2019 when the first store finally opened.

Source: 360 Search Index


The popularity Tim Hortons has gained in China thus far can be largely attributed to its strong brand loyalty among the Chinese Canadian community, the second largest visible minority in Canada. According to a survey conducted by the Chinese Research and Analytics Society of Canada, Tim Hortons has extremely high brand awareness (97%) among Chinese Canadians in the GTA. 93% of Chinese Canadians have visited a Tim Hortons branch in the past year and 60% of them do so at least once per month.

Tim Hortons’ strong brand awareness and loyalty have also been coupled with its community engagement, converting many Chinese Canadians to become advocates for the brand. In 2006, Tim Hortons launched the Every Cup Tells a Story campaign. One featured commercial, Proud Fathers, tells a story of a Chinese father who was always very strict to his son about putting his studies ahead of playing hockey. Fast forward to decades later: that same boy is now a father cheering on his own son at a hockey game. During the game, his father unexpectedly shows up with two cups of Tim Hortons “double-double” coffees, and it is revealed that he had secretly attended his son’s hockey games to watch him play all those years. This commercial spoke to Chinese parenting styles and cultural differences in the expression of parental love, and resonated with many Chinese Canadians who felt deeply touched by its message.

This Tim Hortons commercial demonstrates the importance of relevant and nuanced storytelling in executing a successful multicultural strategy. Multicultural consumers have a vast array of experiences that exist outside the mainstream Canadian narrative, and bringing them into the spotlight in a culturally appropriate way can create a deep mutual understanding and strong emotional connection with a brand. This unique opportunity should not be ignored, as multicultural consumers are becoming increasingly important within the Canadian market. Visible minorities are projected to account for 36% of the Canadian population by 2036, and building a strong multicultural strategy will be crucial for businesses to maintain their market share as they move into the future.

While the road ahead for Tim Hortons in the Chinese market will be challenging, underscored by shaky diplomatic prospects and fierce competition from both global and local players, the company has managed to score a spectacular opening goal. Perhaps there is a key lesson to learn from this story: Canadian brands should consider engaging with local multicultural communities before stepping into overseas markets.

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Author: David Kincaid, Founder and Managing Partner

Few professional experiences can be as exciting and overwhelming as taking on the CEO role for the first time. Everything changes in unexpected ways; it’s not about climbing the next rung on the ladder, it’s a quantum leap into a new reality. Brand new CEOs need all the practical, impartial and time-tested advice they can get – the select few who can actually say, “Been there, done that.”

We have put together the top 10 “lessons learned” in building your personal brand as the new CEO. We hope you find this helpful.

1. Engage the Board as a Strategic Partner

Boards today need to own strategic decisions jointly with the CEO; they no longer simply anoint them at an annual off-site. The CEO must keep the board engaged in the same way that business units are expected to engage the CEO.

Do only what only a CEO can do. With so many tasks vying for attention the CEO must focus on shaping the company’s definition of success, breaking the frame (for example by changing some fundamental aspect of the company’s business model), resetting expectations, and integrating the company parts with the whole.

2. Move Faster, Drive Harder

In hindsight, most CEOs wish that within their first six months in the job they had narrowed their agenda and quickened their pace. They wish they had selected very few high impact organizational priorities, stayed thoroughly focused on them, and then driven them to completion with a relentless sense of urgency.

3. Set the Tone of what’s Important

Do something concrete that makes a difference to profitability. It establishes your value-add and even more importantly, sets a tone of what is important to you. Not process, not perception, but rather performance and that you hold yourself to the same standard of adding value in a measurable way.

4. You are the Company’s Face to the World

Most executives spend years learning how to manage what goes on inside the company. But the moment they become CEO, they need to make a quick pivot and turn much of their attention to the outside world – not just customers, but investors, shareholders, analysts and the media. It’s almost like learning a whole new job – including some critical lessons on what you can and can’t say, when, and to whom.

5. Find a few people to Confide in

Most CEOs say the cliché is true: It’s an inherently lonely job. As early as you can, identify a select group of confidants, coaches and trusted advisors, including some incumbent or retired CEOs. Every CEO needs some safe outlets – people with whom they can be candid, seek advice, admit to uncertainty, and just let their hair down once in a while.

6. Don’t get distracted by flattery and happy talk

As one CEO advised another, “The moment word gets out that you’re going to be the CEO, your jokes suddenly are funnier, your wife is prettier and your kids are smarter.” Be prepared for how differently people treat you – starting with their reluctance to be the bearer of bad news. Be persistent; get beyond the smoke and smiles and discover what’s actually going on inside the organization.

7. Stop doing your old job

All new CEOs have to establish their own leadership identity – but that’s particularly hard for those promoted internally, who must quickly achieve the requisite escape velocity to be viewed as “a boss, not a buddy.” Start by identifying the specific things you did in your previous jobs that you will now delegate and distance yourself from – even if you’re convinced you can still do them better than anyone else!

8. It’s all about leading through teams

New CEOs quickly bump up against the limits of their personal influence, and come to understand the necessity of leading through others. It starts with your senior team; if they aren’t 120% aligned – with you and with each other – there is no way your influence will extend past the first row of offices. Make no assumptions, push for clarity from them and ensure everyone “is visibly dancing to the same music and willing to shape the culture.” In large companies, the CEO has to quickly figure out how to keep hundreds of managers reading from the same page and the leadership team is key to accomplishing this.

9. Getting the Culture working with you

As you prepare for and then begin the new job, broaden your perspective beyond strategy, operations and finance to understand that one of the CEO’s greatest opportunities – and challenges – is to manage and, if necessary, change the organization’s culture and social dynamics. Successful and sustainable execution of strategy requires a culture that enables and supports the strategy. Many CEOs have failed because the culture “ate their strategy for breakfast”! That begins with understanding what the culture actually is, versus what people say it is. Then connect the company’s strategy to everyone – connect the dots for them so they can see their role in helping achieve your goals. And when communicating, repeat and repeat again the key themes… and then repeat again!

10. Don’t drag your feet on the tough talent decisions

Pushing a new agenda is impossible without the right people in the right jobs. By far, the most common specific regret acknowledged by first-time CEOs is that they didn’t act faster to remove people in key roles who lacked the necessary skill or commitment. With the best of intentions, new CEOs often delay the difficult moves far too long, at great cost to the organization and to the dismay of top performers. New CEOs – and in particular, those from the outside, who are still learning who’s who – need to gather information quickly, seek the best available advice, trust their instincts and then make a decision.

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By: Matt Kelly, Managing Partner

In a recent collaboration with the Schulich Executive School of Business and Southwest Jiaotong University, I had the great privilege of speaking at several high-speed rail forums on building global brands this past week (as I write this post, I’m traveling in comfort by high speed rail between Chengdu and Beijing, whisking along at 310 kmh).

At the University I saw emerging rail technology that will soon see trains traveling at 1000 kmh… the same speed of the 777 jet I took to fly to China. Furthermore, the hyperloop that they are currently prototyping will travel at 2000 kmh and one day up to 4000 kmh, so they claim. A far cry from the Via Rail I recently took from a trip Montreal to Toronto.

Two things struck me at the conference:

1.  How far behind we are in North America when it comes to high speed rail, in a country of vast distances built on rail travel

2.  Our LEVEL5 point of view that great brands truly are the ‘value of a promise consistently kept’ travels across categories and continents


This fantastic rail technology is traveling around the world. But it, too, is a highly competitive category, with German, French, Japanese and others competing with the Chinese for market access and market share. The functional benefits delivered by high speed rail are impressive, moving people at incredible speeds and distances, reducing pollution, and driving economic prosperity to name a few. But they all do that.

To succeed, these rail companies will need to build brands, brands that make more than a promise of speed and on time performance. As one of the most successful travel brands in the world, Cathay Pacific promises a ‘life well traveled’. They delight with a brand experience built on insight and long on quality. They have established a deep emotional connection with their customers by driving quality into every corner of their organization. They command a price premium over other airlines.

High speed rail will transform travel and with it the lives of billions. What a glorious opportunity to build an inspiring brand just as Steve Jobs did ten years ago with the introduction of the first iPhone. The first job for these brands is to understand what really drives value in the markets they plan to enter. Uncover and quantify the most powerful drivers of purchase behaviour that will get consumers out of their cars to take the train. They must then make a compelling promise to their customers, strategic partners and communities they impact, and rally their organizations to consistently keep that promise as Cathay Pacific did. That’s what great brands do.

Smart brands also understand the cost of making a mistake if they misread a market prior to entry.

Within 10 years we’ll see these brands in North America… which one will be the Apple or Cathay Pacific of high speed rail travel?

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By: Matthew Kelly, Managing Partner

It is amazing how after just 10 years Apple has convinced consumers to pay up to 10x more for the new iPhone than they did with their first phone.  Apple phone sales have flattened out recently, but prices, and presumably margins just keep on rising. Despite competitors who have largely closed the gap on functionality.

The three new phones approach $1300+ in cost. The XS Max is $1519. More than many laptops and all other cell phones. The new gold phone will likely be a big seller in China as a luxury good according to CNN. “Better than ever before” promises Apple exec Phil Schiller. Sure size, colour and new functionality is important. But what is really driving value and a luxury brand price premium? The power of the Apple brand. The emotion that goes along with treating yourself. Status. Feeling even perhaps a bit more powerful. Out front.

Apple sells to desire not need.  And like all powerful brands they make and consistently deliver a compelling promise. Powerful brands command a price premium and deliver superior margins.  And earn what is so uncommon these days – consumer loyalty. I have to admit sneaking a peak at the new XS iPhone and wondering when my iPhone 8 contract ends. You can pre-order yours today.

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By Alexander Czegledy, Intern Analyst (Summer 2018)

Summers always fly by, but this one’s felt especially fast due to the pace and pleasure of working with LEVEL5.


Every organization talks a lot about culture these days and LEVEL5 is no exception. The difference is that here, you can feel it. From my first case interview to my end of Summer debrief, everyone has been exceptionally friendly and outgoing. The team here is tight-knit, and you get to meet them outside of the office early and often. On my first day I was out for lunch at St. Lawrence Market with my cubicle mates, and by the end of that week, found myself dueling the consultants over arcade games. Each new recruit has a mentor to oversee their overall progress; it was always good to have Frank to go to with general questions. To train as a consultant, the learning process more closely resembles a series of apprenticeships, with different L5’ers teaching you distinct aspects of the job as you encounter clients with their own set of challenges.

Another key benefit is the team composition: each project is “owned” by a Partner, facilitated by a project lead (often a Principal, Director or Manager) and driven by Consultants and Analysts, putting you in touch with expertise at every stage of a consulting career. Each client has a specific need to address, and every partner has a unique background and managing style. Adapting to this is sometimes challenging, but always a rewarding learning experience, made easier as everyone is so open and approachable. There’s a down-to-earth atmosphere at LEVEL5 that I was pleasantly surprised to discover in the finance district.


Companies must be catching on to this, because my next favorite thing about the internship was the list of clients I was introduced to. After expressing interest in the travel, I was attached to a primary Summer project: brand transformation for a leading North American travel operator. The project was certainly research heavy, but I was also brought in to collaborate on strategic frameworks, join interviews and board meetings, and even help articulate our main findings. At every stage I felt like a valued member of the team – my only regret is that I won’t be around to see it through to the end.

However, working at a boutique firm, it’s inevitable that you’ll have the opportunity to work on a variety of projects. I was able to work in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors, with clients that included one of Canada’s top retailers, an innovator in the Health industry, and a local sports organization. At this company, you will take on multiple roles that allows you to gain valuable experience in different areas, quickly. For me, this provided the balance I was looking for. LEVEL5 is good at noticing when you take on these additional tasks. Going above and beyond is recognized informally, and formally, over a Kudos lunch at the end of every month. In that spirit, I’d like to thank them for an exceptional Summer.