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Sylvia is a Director at Level5, where she spearheads the Transformation practice and Level5’s Women in Consulting initiative. With a hybrid background of Brand Strategy and Organizational Transformation, Sylvia partners with clients across a range of industries to understand and define their Promise, co-build customer-focused strategies, and then help with implementation through organization design and transformation. Prior to joining Level5 in June 2014 as a Consultant, Sylvia earned her MBA from Schulich School of Business, and prior to that, worked at Scotiabank for over 5 years in various customer service, people management, and communications roles.

I went into consulting because… it’s an industry that challenges you from day 1. Given the pace of change in today’s world, as consultants, we are continuously evolving how we work and look at our clients’ diverse business challenges so that we can continue to deliver value to them.


I love working at Level5 because… it’s an incredible place to learn and grow among some of the best and brightest people. After 5 years, I still come into work every day knowing that I will laugh and learn – two key ingredients that underpin Level5’s culture. Our culture is not only something that’s internal to our firm… it also inspires how we engage and work side-by-side with our clients to define and implement strategies that tackle their biggest challenges and deliver sustainable results.


I think the most important quality of a good consultant is curiosity and passion for continuous learning and personal growth. You learn a lot very quickly as a consultant – almost by necessity. The learning never stops.


My proudest personal accomplishment was…  finding my authentic voice and overcoming my fears around being too vocal, or wrong, and perfection procrastination, which was beginning to hinder my career growth and opportunities. I can pinpoint the exact presentation that I first delivered in “my voice”. By letting myself become comfortable with the uncomfortable, my focus shifted from having to say the “perfect” things or deliver the “perfect” presentations to the impact I want to create and how I want people to feel when they leave the room. Not only has this overhauled my presentation and facilitation style, it’s helped me build deeper and more impactful connections with colleagues, clients and people in general. Finding your authentic voice and feeling empowered to use it will help you excel in any career.


My boldest move to date was deciding to quit my job at a Big 5 bank after over 5 years of “climbing the corporate ladder” so that I can pursue my MBA and reset my career path. I knew I needed a change and the career path that I was pursuing no longer excited me. During my MBA, I was able to focus on my professional development, explore my interests, and think through what I wanted to do long-term. That’s how I got exposed to the world of consulting.


I stay inspired/ motivated by… the new and unexpected opportunities that each day brings, and my husband, who is my number one cheerleader and partner in life.


My biggest setback has been… there are so many. Life is a series of setbacks and failures.  No meaningful success was ever achieved without failure.


I overcame it by looking at failure differently. Failure is delay, not defeat. It’s a temporary detour, not a dead end.


Being a woman in consulting is awesome! There’s a shift happening in the industry. There are more women applying to consulting firms, and consulting firms are not only making efforts to recruit more women, but also making meaningful efforts to develop and retain them.


My best advice to aspiring consultants is beyond case and interview prep, do some soul searching to figure out what type of culture is a good fit for you. If there’s a firm you’re really interested in working for, take the time to get to know some if its people, how you would fit in at the firm, and if the culture is one that you would thrive in. Culture fit is critical for long-term growth and success at any firm… and you’ll love going into work every day.



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Level5’s strategic partner Brand Finance launched Canada’s Most Valuable Brands 2019 last week.  Canadian Tire once again retained its title as Canada’s strongest retail brand.  Recently, Level5 sat down with Susan O’Brien, Senior Vice President of Marketing for Canadian Tire, to discuss how Canadian Tire has grown its brand value and strength year over year. 

The new era of digital retailing has created a lot of casualties: how do you assess your preparedness for the new era?

In a time when retail is undergoing such a dramatic transformation, we are constantly looking at new ways to meet our customers expectations. We look at all metrics we have traditionally tracked and have also added a whole new set that help us monitor our customer engagement- from Net Promoter Score (NPS) to improved measures of Marketing ROI like Return on Ad Spend (ROAS). And of course, we use our rich customer data to help us test and measure new approaches and initiatives.

Owned Brands are a key component of Canadian Tire’s go-forward strategy – could you illustrate the impact of this strategy on your Brand?

Owned brands will continue to be a key element of our growth strategy. We look to differentiate ourselves by offering unique, high quality products which can only be found in our stores and offer a meaningful margin advantage. We are putting the customer at the heart of our business strategy and decision making, bringing them the latest and greatest products and engaging them through exciting marketing campaigns like ‘We Do New’, which puts a spotlight on the hottest innovative products. We do believe our strength in building and marketing our owned brands has been key to helping reinvent the Canadian Tire brand over the years.

What is the role of Triangle loyalty and credit cards in the company’s long-term strategy?

Triangle Rewards was developed to attract new customers, increase engagement and relevance, and create more loyal lifetime customers. It is enabling us to do this because it provides such rich data, informing a single view of our customer and their needs, wants and preferences.

We have attracted over two million new customers since Triangle Rewards was launched, creating the fastest growing loyalty and credit card program in Canada. We now have over 12 million loyalty members who are shopping across our banners and receiving personalized offers for shopping within our marketplace. Making the transition from mass merchant to a one-to-one retailer is not easy, however we now have 60% of our customers shopping across our banners at Mark’s, SportChek and Canadian Tire Retail using Triangle Rewards.

What trends in Canadian retail can we expect to see over the next year?

We believe the biggest trend in retail branding is personalization – creating unique, customized solutions and communications that show greater relevance to Canadians. And we believe the strength of our Triangle Rewards program, our enormous digital and physical footprint and our strong relationship with Canadians is setting us up well for that personalization journey.

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Author: Rob Gizzie, Director

Legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” It turns out that when it comes to running a modern-day sports franchise, Coach Lombardi may have been incorrect.


A recent Financial Times article about Manchester United, the fabled Premier League football franchise (or “soccer” depending on where you’re from), brings this to life. Despite the club’s relatively poor performance on the field (relatively being the key word here), revenues jumped from £363.2 million in 2013 to £590 million last year, an increase of more than 60%!

Two main areas of focus have led to this great success for the commercial side of United’s operation:

1. Establishing lucrative, long terms sponsorships

United has proved that the old adage of “striking while the iron is hot” is true. The brand’s secret sauce has been to establish long-term, highly lucrative contracts with sponsors and partners. These include the 10-year uniform manufacturing deal it signed in 2015 with Adidas worth an astounding £750 million and the £559 million uniform logo sponsorship deal with Chevrolet signed the same year. United has modified its approach over time, focusing on fewer global partnerships over a greater number of more local ones. Two things have made this possible for United:

  • The company has invested in a 100+ person sponsorship team to secure and support partners.

  • It has invested in building a highly respected, highly valuable brand that sponsors want a piece of. According to Brand Finance’s 2018 rankings, Manchester United is the most valuable football brand in the world.

2. Extending the fan experience “beyond the pitch”

Unlike most businesses, sport enterprises are faced with a unique capacity issue: there are only so many seats that can fit into a given stadium, meaning that there is only so much ticket revenue they can generate.

Obviously, raising ticket prices can help in driving revenues up, but there’s a limit to what fans will tolerate. Recognizing this issue, United has committed to extending their experience with fans beyond Old Trafford, the club’s home stadium. To do this, they’ve built an app enabling fans to experience the club from afar, through things such as live statistics during matches, interviews with players and other content. United claims it has become the most downloaded app in 70 countries.

Building a strong brand that’s brought to life through a compelling customer/ fan/user isn’t easy, but as showcased by Manchester United, it pays long-term dividends once the work is done. Furthermore, these things all tie together and reinforce one another: a strong brand is made stronger through good partners and an excellent experience, while a good experience bolsters a strong brand which attracts partners.

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Written by: Hua Yu, Managing Partner, Frank Zhang, Senior Consultant and Richard Wang, Analyst

Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma poses with shoppers on a visit to a Freshippo store in Shanghai

Source: Alibaba Group

When Amazon completed its acquisition of Whole Foods in 2018, people immediately began speculating about how the deal could revolutionize the world of grocery shopping. Amazon’s logistics and fulfilment capabilities combined with Whole Foods’ physical locations and grocery expertise could provide the company with the opportunity to develop a powerful omnichannel ecosystem and usher in the future of retail. However, while Amazon has been struggling to integrate Whole Foods in the race to this new paradigm, a brand in China has already crossed the finish line.

Hema Xiansheng, also known as Freshippo, is a futuristic grocery chain started in 2016 by ecommerce giant Alibaba that has already grown to over 100 locations across China and is raising the bar on what grocery shopping should look like. The brand is part of the “New Retail” movement, a term coined by Alibaba to describe a truly omnichannel shopping experience that blends digital and physical with a focus on the customer journey.

All product labelling at Freshippo is standardized, and a mobile app allows shoppers to scan any item and see product details in addition to value-added information like recommended recipes. From there, customers can check out and pay digitally through the app. Shoppers can also schedule a delivery rather than line up with their groceries in-store, and Freshippo locations double as distribution centers for local orders. Conveyor belts run along the ceiling and allow employees to pack delivery orders efficiently without disrupting the flow of foot traffic in the store. Adhering to the promise of a quick and easy experience, Freshippo uses the powerful Alibaba logistics network to guarantee free 30-minute delivery within a 3-kilometer radius.


Freshness is very important to Chinese consumers, and Freshippo uses this as a key element of its brand. Produce and meat are sourced from local farms on a daily basis—the store is full of signs that proudly announce that it never sells fresh food left over from the previous day, and the product barcodes allow shoppers to access detailed information on the origin and expiration date of each item. Each store also has an on-demand kitchen and dining area where shoppers can take their freshly selected ingredients to be cooked the way they want it and consumed on the spot.

This sign reads, “We do not sell meat that is left overnight.”

Through the digitization of the entire shopping process, Freshippo can easily aggregate purchase data to predict customer demand and adjust its inventory balance on a daily basis. This addresses a major pain point in the grocery shopping experience, as customers never encounter a situation where their favourite product is out of stock. Meticulously managing inventory levels also allows Freshippo to maintain its practice of daily restocking, as it only has one day to sell fresh meat and produce before it is no longer considered fresh. This active inventory management reduces waste from unsold inventory and enables the brand to uphold its value proposition of providing the freshest foods on the market.

The success of Freshippo can provide several key takeaways for not only grocers but businesses in nearly every industry:

1. Think like a customer
  • Brands need to apply a customer journey lens to everything they do. The so-called battle between physical and digital channels represents a false dichotomy, as both fit into the bigger picture of making a customer’s experience as easy and valuable as possible. Taking on a customer journey-driven view rather than an internal process-driven one can uncover hidden pain points and key moments of truth that make or break the experience for customers.


2. Operationalize your brand
  • Delivering a brand’s promise through operations is crucial—Freshippo’s complex behind-the-scenes operating model is what enables it to make the shopping experience so simple and convenient for customers. At Level5, we refer to this as managing your brand as a business system™. Without building out the required operational capabilities, any amount of marketing investment will result in nothing but an empty promise.


3. Recognize the power of cultural differences
  • Cultural differences hold significant influence over behaviour, and customer journeys should be designed around these insights. These impacts are not only found overseas—visible minorities already comprise nearly a third of Canada’s total population. People tend to hold onto their cultural norms when they emigrate; for instance, many Chinese-Canadians continue to prioritize freshness by making high-frequency, low-volume grocery trips. Trying to fit all your customers into a cookie-cutter journey that does not factor in segment-specific nuances is a sure-fire way to drive them away.

There is no denying that this case study holds significant implications for the future of grocery, but what may be more important for managers are the broader business lessons it highlights. In a world that is becoming increasingly customer-centric, it is crucial for any brand to quickly adapt or risk becoming yesterday’s produce.

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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.