In Shanghai, Why Tim Hortons is the Hottest Brand on Earth

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.

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.


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

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