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The late bloomer- Canada’s cultural rise and how brands can keep up

Amy Badun

Strategy Director
TAXI Toronto

The late bloomer: Canada’s cultural rise and how brands can keep up

Remember that kid at school that everyone used to think was nerdy? The one who didn’t mind doing her own thing because she wanted to. And then eventually, that kid turned out to be super cool and everyone wanted to be her friend? Well, that kid is Canada. And just like that kid, when it wasn’t until later that people found out they were missing out, brands who don’t get to know modern Canada are missing out too.

For a long time, Canada was known for its snow, hockey, public health care, strong environmental efforts, and polite (and maybe a bit boring) people. But today’s Canada looks a lot different than it used to. From our growing cities (and I’m not just talking about Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver) and our diversifying population to our entrenched values and cultures, being Canadian today means many different things.

We’re known for our world class talent: Drake, The Weeknd, Shania, Celine, the Ryans, The Biebs, Seth Rogan, Mike Myers, and the list goes on. But more than that, Canada is proudly progressive, with a strong history of liberal democracy. In a world that sometimes seems to be pulling apart, Canada continues to stand up for tolerance, inclusivity, and the collective good.

We also play an important soft power role on the world stage. We lead the conversation in sustainability. We are a nation of makers and doers, where craft matters. And we are leaders in technology and innovation, having become an important hub for startups, attracting the capital and talent that fuels them.

But while Canada has come of age, many brands still haven’t—whether homegrown Canadian brands or multinationals trying to be relevant when they come to town. They continue to play to the tropes and the stereotypes, wrapping themselves in flannel and celebrating “the good old hockey game.”

So, what should brand think about if they want to connect with modern Canadians?

People: the power of diversity

Canada is a county of immigrants (we welcomed 1.2 million immigrants between 2011 – 2016 alone). While Canada’s indigenous peoples inhabited these lands for thousands of years before the first settlers arrived, we have since welcomed millions of people from all corners of the earth. And while the first wave of immigrants largely came from Europe, today’s new Canadians are largely coming from Asia, South East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Close to 20 percent of Canadians identify as visible minorities. And with them they’re bringing a rich diversity in culture: food, languages, religion, traditions, fashion, music, art, talent, and design. Oh, and money too. Today, ethnic minorities spend one of every three dollars spent on consumer goods. And when it comes to brands, the opportunity goes beyond just casting visible minorities in their ads.  The bigger opportunity is to not just represent diversity, but to truly understand and appreciate cultural nuance—and to celebrate the richness of these cultures.

Places: when Tier 2 suddenly catches up with Tier 1

When we think of urban Canada, we immediately conjure up the big three: Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. And in fact, close to one-third of Canadians live in these cities. But 82 percent of Canadians now live in mid-to-large cities, the highest concentration of the G7. Canada’s second tier cities are trending. Cities like Hamilton, Kewlona, and Saskatoon are all attracting educated, talented young people looking for affordable housing and economic opportunities. New Canadians are also choosing to make these smaller cities important urban hubs. As they do, they’re displacing traditional industries, bringing exciting new economies. Hamilton has a burgeoning tech and arts scene; Saskatoon is leading the way with urban farming; Kitchener-Waterloo is often referred to as Silicon Valley North; and Victoria is pioneering new technologies in sustainable living. With these new urban hubs comes new energy in food, arts, and architecture. The sleepy small towns are now becoming some of Canada’s edgiest, coolest postal codes. Brands have a big opportunity for growth beyond The Six and should work to spot trends in some of these unexpected places.

Passions: Canadian values are its passions

Many countries define themselves by their history, national monuments, or power on the world stage. Canadians define themselves by their values. Sixty-nine percent of Canadians say “our values” are their greatest source of national pride. At a time when the rest of world seems to have gone a little crazy, Canada isn’t just living its values, it’s defending them. With the global rise in nationalism and protectionism, we remain staunch in our commitment to optimism, openness, and progressive values. And while we might feel a little lonely sometimes defending social justice, it’s a constant reminder of “why the world needs more Canada.”

For brands to truly resonate with Canadians, it’s critical to understand and reflect these deep cultural values. While purpose-led brands are sexy in the world of marketing, a commitment to values is truly Canadian.

Where once Canadians would quietly defend themselves with the differentiating belief that “we’re not American”, we now proudly declare, “I am Canadian”. While still a bit humble, we’re confident, we walk a little taller, and we even have a little swagger. For brands to be successful in a modern Canada, they need to get out there and soak it in—the people, the places, and passions. Hear the languages, taste the tastes, dance to all the music. Reflect a Canada that is young, vibrant, progressive, multi-faceted, and, yes, even cool. Shake off the flannel and explore modern Canada.