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For a market that comprises just over 37 million people, Canada presents a complex and intriguing picture to advertisers. The reason is simple: population growth. Canada is growing at a rate of 1.4 percent a year, which is the highest of any G7 nation.

That population surge is driving big changes, not least because immigration accounts for 80 percent of it. The country is diversifying at an unprecedented rate, with its foreign-born population expected to reach 25 to 30 percent of the total by 2036. The primary sources of immigrants are Asia, which accounts for about half, and Europe which speaks for 28 percent of the rest.

Where are they moving? Cities. Although often portrayed as a land of pristine lakes and craggy, snow-covered peaks, Canada is among the most urban of nations today. Over 70 percent of all Canadians live in one of three metro areas: Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver. This gives the country’s advertisers highly saturated and target-rich environments in which to operate, but as with anything Canadian, there’s a lot of nuance in the market.

Digital dominates

To reach this fast-changing set of demographics, Canadian advertisers are investing heavily in digital. It currently accounts for 62.7 percent of advertising spending, greatly exceeding global averages of nearly 50 percent.

It’s important to note that advertising is not a zero-sum game, in which one channel steals dollars from another. Rather, digital advertising has opened a huge new inventory for advertisers with the ability to target highly precise segments for relatively low investments. This has brought many additional local and regional advertisers into the mix, who can now more easily reach nearby consumers.

Digital has also brought something that advertisers have never really had before: accountability. Entire businesses, like Booking.com, have sprung up to play an arbitrage game, paying so much in advertising for easily traceable profit. This has opened a floodgate of new opportunities for new kinds of brands, driving up investments in digital, while other areas remain either flat or in light decline.

You can see this most notably in TV, which is the second largest area of investment for Canadian advertisers. It currently accounts for 23.2 percent of total spend, which compares to 29.2 percent for global averages. This total has remained roughly flat over the past three years, as Canadians watch a lot of traditional TV and especially sports. Advertisers in Québec, in particular, can take advantage of an audience that often clusters around popular shows (see below).

Radio and out-of-home advertising are also holding roughly steady at 4.4 percent and 5 percent respectively, although this may have changed since the pandemic. Likely, Canadians are spending less time in traffic, and thus less time listening to the radio. And there certainly been fewer people out and about to view billboards and public video screens.

Canada is also following global trends in reducing spending on newspapers and magazines, which account for only 6 percent of investment in 2020. With people increasingly getting their news and entertainment from digital sources, concerns for the long-term stability of these channels should only increase.

On a final note, Canadian advertisers have traditionally spent more on cinema advertising than their global peers. With the arrival of the pandemic, however, this investment has all but evaporated and doesn’t look to come back anytime soon. Sixty-one percent of Canadians report they are either concerned or very concerned about returning to a movie theater. Perhaps the drive-in is ready for a comeback.

Quebec stands apart

No one in Canada needs to be reminded that Quebec tends to march to its own drumbeat, and media is no exception. French Canadians consume media in ways that are vastly different from the rest of Canada. For example, they spend 32 percent more time watching TV than English Canadians and correspondingly less time on the Internet.

What they watch is also quite different. While English Canada is cluttered with American-produced programming, French Canada tends to create its own shows with local talent. This leads to fewer choices, higher ratings, and the ability to build massive reach. For example, the English language production of The Voice achieved a respectable 7.2 percent rating. Meanwhile, the Québec-produced La Voix achieved a 28.2 percent rating!

The good news for advertisers is that the French-language market is far less fragmented than the English market. The percentage of French Canadians who watch traditional TV is 95.6 percent, and they are less likely than English consumers to split their attention on YouTube, streaming services, or other nontraditional outlets. While there are only a few shows and events during which English Canadian advertisers can count on overwhelming reach, their French-Canadian counterparts have many. Of course, the global trend towards fragmentation isn’t missing French Canadians entirely, but they are going at their own pace.

Things to consider

Lean into Canada

In 2020, Air Canada scored big with “Fly Like a Canadian,” an ad that built on humorous stereotypes of Canadians (see Theory in Action). While Canadians have never been as loudly patriotic as their southern neighbors, they exhibit a growing confidence and pride in their country. Leaning into and lightly making fun of Canadian stereotypes can be a great way to connect with an audience that is becoming increasingly different but still agrees that its home country is a nice place to be.

The big split

With French Canadians consuming media in such different ways and with different cultural references, paying attention to their preferences is more necessary than ever. Given the narrower range of viewing options and the tendency to cluster around popular shows, the audience may be easier to reach with broad appeals, lessening the need for highly targeted strategies often employed elsewhere.

Don’t stop advertising

A recent Kantar study found that global consumers are surprisingly open to advertising, even during a global crisis. Eighty-four percent of them are happy with the amount of advertising they receive from brands, and only 2 percent think brands should stop advertising. Like their global counterparts, Canadians are particularly impressed by commercials that are helpful and informative. So, while you may be tempted to slash the advertising budget, now is a great time to reach out to consumers and remind them of both your values and the value you bring.

Make it easy

Advertising is only truly effective if it leads to great customer experiences, and if customers experience a disconnect between promise and reality, they will react negatively. Anything that can streamline purchasing, including direct-to-consumer e-commerce platforms, is likely welcome. The easier you can make things across the entire customer journey, the more pleasant that journey will be.

Theory in action

Air Canada is a great example of a brand that is getting pandemic advertising right. Despite an incredibly challenging 2020 for the airline industry, it has made significant investments in digital and social advertising, as well as launching a successful international ad campaign. Featuring Sandra Oh, it urged people to “Fly Canadian” by drawing on many of the country’s positive stereotypes. While the spot was amusing — Oh manages to break up a fight between two siblings by getting them to share a poutine — it also demonstrated two valuable lessons for Canadian brands. The first is, obviously, that the country itself is an important asset to its brands. The second is that even in a downturn, it’s never time to go dark. By keeping its brand humorously in front of consumers, Air Canada is positioning itself well for the rebound.