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Written by: Matt Kelly, Managing Partner

These days, it feels like the daily roar of news stemming from the chaos enveloping our southerly neighbours is drowning out almost everything else that’s newsworthy. But one very famous brand did manage to make headlines this week with a very bold, calculated piece of marketing.

Nike is turning 30 this year and it’s making some noise.

To celebrate its anniversary, the sports giant is launching a new advertising campaign featuring NFL football player Colin Kaepernick – he who famously took to his knee during the national anthem to highlight racial injustice.

The reaction to the new campaign, which (as of writing this) hasn’t yet aired, was swift and pointed, with some critics burning Nike shoes and clothing in protest and initiating boycotts under the hashtag #JustBurnit.

The NFL, which experienced a decline in television ratings following the kneeling controversy, could no doubt do without its premiere sponsor launching such a controversial campaign at the season opener.

As for Nike, its stock has been increasing steadily for years. Although its value experienced a slight setback in response to this news, the campaign is clearly a very shrewd and calculated move on Nike’s part. 

Why Nike’s right to just do it.

Nike sales have struggled as of late, with several new and high-profile product launches failing to generate much excitement. One could even say that the brand that daringly launched the ‘Just Do It’ campaign featuring Michael Jordon in 1986 has been becoming too mainstream and, for its hardcore advocates, perhaps even a bit tired.


Being viewed as tired, or losing relevance, is the kiss of death for a brand. (Think Blockbuster, Sears and Compaq.) But Nike’s far from done. With the launch of this campaign, the company’s injecting a shot of daring and controversy into its brand and it’s sure to benefit from the hype that ensues.


Sure, Nike may lose some of its older customers, but with Lebron James and Serena Williams – the two most celebrated and admired athletes on the planet – riding to its defence, Nike is reaffirming its relevance to an entirely new generation of customers. 


Nike is staying on strategy. What about you?

On our Brandmap™, the opposite of a ‘tired’ brand is one that is ‘outspoken’, evokes ‘shock,’ and is seen as ‘pushing the limits.’ For 30 years, ‘pushing personal limits’ has been core to the Nike brand’s DNA. So, with this bold campaign, they’re bang on strategy.

Nike’s being talked about, and for millions of consumers under 40, being relevant. Sure, Nike’s a bit old, but it’s ok to be an older brand. It’s just not ok to be stodgy and out of date, and that’s something many Canadian brands could benefit from reflecting on.

Do you really understand what is at the core DNA level of your brand? Is your brand losing relevance? Is your brand positioned for the next wave of consumers who view the world very differently from aging boomers? How does your brand break out from the clutter and get talked about? If you need a hand figuring this out, you might want to consider giving our BrandMap a try.


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By: Selina Phan, Analyst Intern and Richard Wang, Analyst 

On August 20, 2018, LEVEL5 welcomed a group of inquisitive students to our newly renovated office for the annual Open House event. Ian Madell, President and Managing Partner of LEVEL5, kicked off the event with opening remarks, speaking to LEVEL5’s history from its origination 16 years ago to where it is today.

After the team introduced themselves, students were assigned to separate breakout rooms where they had the opportunity to participate in panel discussions and get a better idea of what it’s like to work at LEVEL5. Among the topics covered included our culture, the work we do for our clients, and the lessons we’ve learned through our careers in consulting. Students were particularly interested in learning about the opportunities around transformation work, which is becoming an increasingly important part of L5’s service offering.

As the panels drew to an end, everyone came together again to network and connect. Students had the chance to ask their burning follow-up questions, and LEVEL5 was able to meet and get to know many of the wonderful people who came out to our event. It was a night of learning and laughing, and we hope that our guests were able to get a feel of the culture that we pride ourselves on so much.

With recruiting on the minds of many students as they head back to school this fall, here’s some advice from us:

  1. Be yourself. Remember that recruiting is a two-way street, and cultural fit is crucial for both students and firms as they evaluate each other. Good cultural fit leads to greater job satisfaction, increased retention rates, and overall higher-quality work. Most importantly, it’s often what makes you look forward to going to work every morning. Culture is in everything we do here, from the hard work and impact-driven results we produce, to the laughter and camaraderie in the office on any given day.

  2. Put yourself out there. Companies can only get to know you if you make yourself known, and it’s important to do that so you’re not just another name on a resume. Step outside your comfort zone and reach out to representatives from firms you’re interested in. Talk about your goals and your interests. It helps a lot to have people inside the firm on your side, and having a personality attached to your application does a great deal to differentiate you from other equally qualified candidates.

  3. Don’t stress out. It’s easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of expectations, especially when recruiting season is in full swing and your peers are all scrambling to find jobs. Don’t worry if you don’t find a fit right away; companies are recruiting throughout the year and it doesn’t matter if you’re the first in your class to sign an offer or the hundredth. As long as you keep things in perspective and stay motivated no matter how bleak it looks, things will eventually work out.

LEVEL5 would like to thank all the students who attended, and we wish everyone the best of luck as the new semester begins. Be sure to keep an eye on your university’s career services calendar to find out when LEVEL5 will be at your next on-campus recruitment event!

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Written by: Hua Yu, Managing Partner & Frank Zhang, Senior Consultant

In June 2018, Ant Financial Services Group – operator of China’s biggest online payment platform – raised around $14 billion in what market watchers called the biggest-ever single fundraising effort to be undertaken globally by a private company.

Ant Financial, currently worth 50% more than Goldman Sachs, is poised to become one of the most valuable financial companies in the world. What surprises me is that the company didn’t start out as a traditional bank, accumulating its assets by attracting deposits. Rather, it was initially created to serve as a payment solution provider when its parent company Chinese technology giant Alibaba started out as an online shopping platform.

In China, money primarily flows through a pair of digital ecosystems that blend social media, commerce and banking. These ecosystems are run mostly by Alibaba and another Chinese tech giant called Tencent. While neither company started out as a bank, both have surpassed Chinese banks in terms of fee-based revenues, in particular, revenues from payments.

If we put this into a global context, while many traditional banks are struggling to increase their fee-based revenues in this low-interest rate environment, two forerunners have already emerged in China.

Furthermore, driven by leading Chinese online financial institutions, the Chinese financial service industry is evolving to adopt a scenario-based financial service model based on the concept of ‘finlife’ – a term originally coined by Long Chen and later echoed by Cheng Li, the CTO of Alipay.

“We call it from fintech to finlife… Alipay has evolved from a digital wallet to a lifestyle-enabler.”

  -Cheng Li, CTO of Alipay

China has put ‘finlife’ on the map. Should Canada follow their lead?

It appears we’d be wise to do so.

According to Chen, ‘fintechs’ have been able to grow much faster in China compared to the rest of the world because there has been a concentrated effort to develop financial services that aim to make ‘real life’ better, rather than strictly digitizing existing financial services, as the chart below illustrates.

By following China’s trend-setting lead, Canadian banks will find themselves well positioned to:

1. Leverage leading practices from other countries to develop unique competitive advantages in their home markets

Banking is a highly competitive yet saturated industry in North America. At least in Canada, all five major banks offer similar products and services. It is hard for a bank to differentiate itself from others in terms of products and services. Thus, it is important for any player in a traditional industry (such as bank) to learn from leading organizations in other countries and develop differentiated practices and advantages.

2. Better serve multicultural consumers by fully understanding their pre-immigration input

Through our own research here at LEVEL5, we’ve learned that few organizations are actually aware of how their multicultural consumers previously banked in their native markets. Nor do they have a sense of what trends have driven growth in those markets. We’ve also discovered that the way these consumers used to bank can significantly impact the way they expect to be treated in Canada. 

In examining the concept behind “from fintech to finlife”, as Cheng Li refers to it, one thing became clear to me. Chinese financial service providers have already gone beyond banking and are looking to address real-life scenarios. As such, customers coming from China are likely to have very different and higher expectations than other Canadians when seeking banking services.

At LEVEL5, we leverage our experience and expertise spanning global regions and industries to uncover the market whitespace that drives growth opportunities for Canadian organizations. If you’d like to explore potential growth drivers for your organization, contact us to learn more.

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By: Selina Phan, Summer Intern Analyst (2018)

During my summer internship, I had the opportunity to work with a national retail client and a provincial Crown corporation, as well as a local community centre on a pro-bono project, learning by actively participating and taking ownership of parts of the client deliverables. This included a research-intensive competitor analysis, strategy validation focus groups with senior-level managers, a pitch presentation for a new client with LEVEL5’s founder David Kincaid, and countless PowerPoint slides. One major highlight was the opportunity to deliver a presentation on the work I completed for the local community centre project in front of our client, their board, and the entire LEVEL5 team! Not only did I gain valuable experience, I was able to add value during my time at LEVEL5.

It’s not only the projects and work that make LEVEL5 unique. Teams are flat and collaborative, with senior-level managers and partners listening to your opinions and insights, resulting in a cohesive team that works across titles. Consultants who aren’t even part of the project are happy to lend their time and expertise in helping to collaborate on ideas and solutions. My mentor was a constant source of guidance and support, both personally and professionally. Our regular smoothie dates helped me identify opportunities for growth and development.

I had the opportunity to contribute not only on client projects, but also to the firm and culture itself, playing an active part in summer events such as the Women in Consulting panel and the L5 Open House.

Though it’s only been four months, it feels like much longer from when I first walked through the LEVEL5 office. The familiarity that you get from a small but highly efficient team of 25 is unique here, where there’s a balance of hard work, fun, and friends. On a given Thursday afternoon, everyone gets together to catch up, act out movies in a game of charades, and listen to Neil’s latest Drake playlist. Whether through impromptu lunches at the sunny park benches along King Street or CSR initiatives with a local children’s summer camp, there is a sense of inclusion, camaraderie, and support. This translates into the work as well, where there is a diversity of interesting, high calibre clients.

The problem-solving, critical thinking, and teamwork that I expected in consulting were exactly what I had exposure to at LEVEL5, plus so much more. I found the ease of friends and colleagues who enjoy work and life, impromptu 2×2 whiteboarding, and the fun that permeates through the hard work and impactful results.

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By: Alexander Czegledy, Intern Analyst

Earlier this month, Toronto’s TTC riders were surprised to hear a familiar voice telling them how to “grab some munchies” with the new hop-on/hop-off feature. However, the tip didn’t come from a hungry friend, but from Canadian comedian Seth Rogen, over the PA system.

Many see the writer and star of films like Superbad and This is the End as a funny choice. But have they considered that funny may be exactly what the TTC is looking to build into their brand?

When driving a brand, it’s important to keep both hands on the wheel.

It’s a proven fact that consumer decisions are at least 50% emotional. Perhaps even more so in situations involving local pride, daily routine and entertainment.

Through a validation process of over one million interviews conducted in 23 countries, LEVEL5 and leading research firm Hotspex created BrandMap™. In recent years, this tool has identified the most forceful emotional and rational drivers behind purchase decisions for major organizations, with a 0.92 correlation to actual behavior.

Regardless of the products and/or services they represent, all brands should begin by establishing a strong core in the centre of these eight key zones.

As these attributes become more pronounced, approaching the outer orbits of the LEVEL5 BrandMap™, they first grow powerful to the point where an organization can not only differentiate on them, they actually swell to the point where consumers begin to respond negatively. Especially important negative experiences with a brand are proven to be 3X more influential than positive ones.

That said, let’s take a closer look at the TTC.

Welcome to the Line-Hassle Express

Let’s face it, at best Toronto’s subway system lacks panache.

Satisfaction rates are steady; roughly 75% of passengers rate the system as being at least “adequate.”  However, riders are often frustrated by chronic delays (an average of 57 a day between 2014 and 2017), payment issues, and overcrowding.

With only two lines serving the city centre, a signal system from 1954, and no new downtown stations built since the 1960s, it’s not surprising that Torontonians feel their metro is outdated, despite it being somewhat competent.

Toronto Mayor John Tory is the first to acknowledge that the TTC lags behind Toronto’s needs, putting it “at the top of the priority list.” How can they quickly rejuvenate the TTC’s dreary image?


Enter the entertainer.

After a conversation with Tory, the TTC announced Rogen would be the new voice of etiquette on the subway, a service he’d performed for Vancouver a week earlier. Rogen’s announcements take a humorous approach to commuter issues, like “backpack hunchbacks,” and emphasize the actor’s Canadian identity and personal use of public transit.

However, incorporating a celebrity’s brand into your own is not a risk-free strategy. Vancouver only refreshed their messaging after assault allegations emerged against their last announcer: Morgan Freeman.

Rogen’s role in Toronto is polarizing. A CTV poll found that only 49% support his involvement. Others thought of his comments as “rude,” or “judgemental.” Customers care deeply and are highly polarized by the move, a situation that any organization would have difficulty navigating.

Part of the TTC’s response to the tedium and frustration pinned to its brand is to try injecting it with a little of the opposite – something fun and exciting. The core challenge, however, is that emotion is hard to quantify and even harder to address. That’s where a tool like LEVEL5 BrandMap™ can help.

Taking a look at some of the outlying qualities in the knowledgeable and trustworthy categories, the TTC’s position becomes apparent; labels like “frustration,” “out of date,” “boring,” and “unpleasant” are commonly attached to it.

The way to balance a brand’s negative connotations is to draw from the other side of the map, leveraging positive qualities across the way, such as “youthful,” the “class clown” and “friendly,” – i.e., the very qualities Rogen is known to deliver.

While some appreciate his brand of humour, many see this comedian as “unsophisticated” or “lewd,” straying too deep into the negative zones of “fun” and “friendly.”

As Rogen once said, “most comedy comes out of misery.” For now, commuters can hopefully enjoy a brief respite while waiting for a real change.


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By: Matt Kelly, Managing Partner


Coffee retail brand Second Cup was in the news yesterday for considering getting into the cannabis business by converting some of their coffee shops into cannabis stores. Their shares instantly rose with this news.

It’s worth considering for these very compelling reasons:

  1. Second Cup – once the pioneer up upscale coffee – has been struggling to compete with international juggernauts in the hyper-competitive café industry and has been losing market share to McDonalds and Starbucks, as well as the hometown hero Tim Hortons. Second Cup just does not have the resources to compete effectively with the big boys. Their same-store sales history in the last decade proves that.

  1. Ontario government announced earlier this week that it was dropping the previous plan to sell cannabis through government-run stores in favour of allowing private sales. This announcement has the potential to thrust Second Cup into gaining category leadership overnight with first-mover advantage.

  1. There is plenty of potential upside and minimal investment required given that Second Cup already has brand recognition, retail and merchandising expertise and distribution, a healthy retail footprint, committed franchisees looking for enhanced margins and strong operations and marketing capabilities.


They may even find a way to keep their high margin coffee business – and grow their late-night snacking product line.


It’s all just smoke for now… but it could be the second coming of Second Cup.

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By: Matthew Kelly, Managing Partner

You may have noticed the world’s most successful brand, and the world’s most valuable company, turned a $1,000,000,000,000 last week (in market cap).

Not bad for an organization that Steve Jobs had to save from bankruptcy just 21 years ago.

So how did Apple do it?

The playbook is too long to review here but one overarching theme comes to mind.

He understood innately what consumers deepest desires were. Enjoying their favourite music anytime, anywhere.  Connecting with loved ones on facetime. Demystifying technology at friendly genius bars.  While competitors were selling features and technology, Apple was selling desire, generating love.

I loved my first ipod. Having thousands of songs at my fingertips in this tiny, beautifully designed metal wedge, in any colour under the rainbow.

I loved my iphone.  I marveled that it was so easy to use it did not come with an instruction booklet. That I could ditch my camera and video camera .  I could search the web and find any answer on google. I would trade my old phone in for the new one even when the old phone was perfectly fine. I didn’t blink when the invoice said $659.00 for a phone. Steve understood the emotion attached to ‘I’.

At LEVEL5 Strategy Group, we say a great brand understands the Value of Promise Consistently Kept™.

Steve Jobs understood what humans valued at a deep level. He promised ‘simplicity’ through emotions and built a tightly controlled, exceptional customer experience to deliver that promise. 21 years later Apple is still delivering against that promise, better than anyone.

These days I love turning my iphone off. I’ve become too involved. Too dependent. But I also can’t wait for Apple’s next category disrupter.

If only Apple could deliver what I really desire these days – a simpler life.

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By: Richard Baran-Chong, Manager, LEVEL5 Strategy Group

Pizza. It’s every child’s favourite food. Heck, it’s still one of my favourite foods. And for the first time in my pizza-eating career, I’ve finally encountered a pizza that I don’t like: Papa John’s.

I should clarify – it’s not the pizza I don’t like, it’s the company. And it really isn’t the company, it’s the words of their founder, John Schnatter. Unfortunately, in Papa John’s case, the organization is positioned around the personality of Mr. Schnatter and so its success, or demise, is tied to his words and actions.

At LEVEL5, we use positioning as a means of aligning a client’s strategic intent, style, competencies, and communications in a consistent manner. It can range from very functional-based positioning, on things like ‘Infrastructure,’ to more emotional-based positioning around things like ‘Personality’ (as is the case with Papa John’s).

A Personality-based positioning presents both great risk and great reward. It can be a risk to an organization when the individual has done something wrong, as we’ve seen in the case of Papa John’s where the company’s stock price has fallen nearly 15% since July 11th (the day Forbes reported Mr. Schnatter’s words and he resigned as chairman, though trouble began in November when he called out the NFL). Conversely, it can also inspire confidence and spur loyalty. Case and point, Elon Musk: the man behind Tesla who can attract billions of capital despite never making a year of profit, missing production targets, and burning through dough faster than, well, pizza in a 900-degree wood burning oven.

Papa John’s has moved quickly to distance themselves from Mr. Schnatter’s persona. For starters, he’s being removed from their marketing materials (I hope they recycle those pizza boxes!). Next, we might see a change in their name. Perhaps we will see “PJ’s” as an abbreviated version of the company; the same move pulled by BP, or British Petroleum prior to the oil spill. But these are just surface changes.

Regardless of company name, the organization faces the dilemma of re-positioning themselves while still standing out in an already crowded and mature pizza market as they fight for a bigger slice of the pizza pie. They may hold their ground and have a new personality take over or can ditch the personality-based positioning altogether and embrace a new positioning around their Products, which is already reflected in their tagline “better ingredients, better pizza.” Needless to say, it’s more than a cheesy exercise of changing a name or logo.

To put it in their language: positioning can be thought of as the crust that holds everything together. It requires all of the internal workings of the company, the toppings (yes, including pineapple), to be carefully selected, placed and aligned to become the pizza they want to be seen as in the market, strategically. It’s one thing to redefine your pizza, but ultimately, it needs to be delivered consistently through a brand-driven customer journey… and ideally within 30 minutes or less.

We work with organizations every day to help build and implement brand-driven strategies, which includes companies that need to undergo a shift (or reinvention) of their strategy, positioning, or even the way they execute their strategies.

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By Matt Kelly, Managing Partner

In July 2018, the Toronto Star published a public interest story about a Toronto school where the kindergarten students speak 40 different languages. That’s right, forty. It stopped me in my tracks; not just as a Canadian who takes pride in our diversity, but as someone who advocates the importance of building and maintaining powerful business brands.


Shared identity has become part of our DNA.

As Canadians, we’re celebrated across the globe for being open, welcoming, polite, egalitarian and … well, nice (how very Canadian). For the most part, Canadians have come to take diversity for granted – no longer just in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, but right across the country. Consequently, we’re not bi-lingual; we’re multi-lingual. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

Stop and think about that school for a moment: 40 different languages. 40 unique cultures being lived at home. A total of 630 youngsters, all of them embracing Canada while viewing their world (and making sense of it) through 40 different lenses. The fact that close to 1 in 5 Canadians (these children included) has a disability adds to the diversity of our population.

As an executive who, for many years, was concerned with ensuring that brands translated well into only English and French, I’m struck by what a profound new challenge this presents to clients. It’s not enough for us to acknowledge diversity. We need think about what it really means for our products and services, our customer experiences.


Are you tuned into the diversity of your customers’ values?

At LEVEL5, we believe that successful, branded organizations – the ones that stand apart from their competitors – understand that a brand is ‘the value of a promise consistently kept.’ That is, they understand what really drives value in their marketplace; they make a powerful promise to their customers based on an understanding of what they value; and they operationalize that promise with a consistent, customer experience – from sales to supply chain.

But in today’s world we need to understand and distill hundreds of value drivers down to just a few within the context of a widely diverse market of different languages, cultures, values, generations and attitudes. That’s why, at LEVEL5, we stress the importance of recognizing diversity as an important factor when building a brand strategy and delivering a valuable customer experience.

Our BrandMap™ tells us there are 96 human emotions, 186 personality types, and scores of rational reasons to embrace or reject a brand. Choose the wrong set of value drivers to base your brand promise on and you’ve wasted your marketing dollars and misdirected your organization. A huge cost and missed opportunity.

Get it right, however, and you can position your brand for long-term success and capture more loyal customers.

So ask yourself this:


How well do you know your ‘Canadian’ customers?

Do you have a clear understanding of how they perceive you versus your competitors and does your brand make a compelling promise to your customers that transcends individual needs and attitudes? Do you (and your employees) understand, on a deep, emotional level, what really matters to consumers and what this means for the customer experience you engineer for them?

If not, get on it, and quickly. It won’t be long before those 630 students are making brand decisions of their own.


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By: Hua Yu, Managing Partner
Contributors: Sylvia Palka Melo, Manager & Frank Zhang, Senior Consultant 

During the 2006 Winter Olympics, Tim Hortons launched a series of “Every cup tells a story” commercials. I still remember the one that told a story of an Asian father and son: watch the commercial here.

The commercial portrays a father who was very strict when it came to his son putting studying ahead of playing hockey. Fast forward 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 to the hockey game with two cups of Tim Hortons double double coffees. It turns out that the father would secretly come watch his son play hockey.

The commercial resonated with many Canadians, including Asian-Canadians, who have embraced “hockey” & “double-double” as part of their life here in Canada


To capitalize on China’s population, growing economy and flourishing coffee culture, Tim Hortons has announced a 1,500-store China expansion over the next decade. Read more here.

How does Tim Hortons ensure that the brand stays true to its Canadian roots while finding a way to resonate with Chinese consumers who may not understand the appeal of “hockey” or what a “double double” cup of coffee means?



Opportunity: The coffee consumption culture is flourishing in China, especially among the middle class and younger generations, who represent significant consumption potential coupled with a strong appetite to experience global brands.


Watch Out: Tim Hortons announced that it will first focus on opening new stores in Shanghai and Beijing. Both markets are highly developed and saturated with several domestic and international coffee brands already set up in prime locations. For instance, in Shanghai, the distance between Starbucks stores is less than 100 metres. The high concentration of locations and well-established brand reputation among existing players will make it hard for Tim Hortons to “steal” market share from brands such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee. Location, location, location will be key.



Opportunity: The Chinese-Canadian community is the second largest visible minority in Canada – many of which are advocates of Tim Hortons. They also have friends and families in China that they frequently communicate with whether through text messaging, email, phone calls or video calls (think: We Chat). There is an opportunity for Tim Hortons to leverage existing brand advocates within the Chinese Canadian community to better understand how to communicate the Tim Horton’s brand in China. A good place to start is by identifying which rational and emotional benefits will versus will not resonate with Chinese consumers. The benefits that resonate in North America may not resonate in China.


Watch Out: Tim Hortons brand positioning in North America is a personality-based positioning centred around a professional Canadian hockey player: Miles Gilbert “Tim” Horton.  How the Tim Hortons brand translates its brand story to resonate with Chinese consumers will be one of the key success factors for its Chinese market entry. 


Opportunity: Chinese consumers are considered especially technologically savvy, with the country’s infrastructure having adopted some of the most advanced technologies. How Tim Hortons will leverage technology as part of its consumer experience (e.g., online ordering + in-store pickup, delivery services via third party platforms), build its payment system (e.g., McDonald’s and Starbucks accept WeChat pay in China), and engage with Chinese consumers (e.g., WeChat Channel, WeChat Mini Programs, etc.) will be very interesting.


Watch Out: Successful global brands actively cater to Chinese consumers’ unique appetite by offering local food items. For instance, McDonald’s offers congee as part of its breakfast menu; KFC provides rice instead of french fries with its chicken dinner combos. Even with the most advanced technology offering, missing the mark on understanding and customizing to local tastes, flavours and behaviours will be a deal breaker.


While Canada’s Chinese communities have embraced Tim Hortons, only time will tell whether the values and roots of the Canadian coffee chain brand will resonate in China and rise to the top against some of the already established players in the Chinese market.


“Double double” may indeed mean something to the Chinese consumers in the future!