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Mayor Rob Ford, Tim Hortons and The Risks of Unsolicited Partnerships

Mayor Rob Ford, Tim Hortons and The Risks of Unsolicited Partnerships

For years, marketers have doubled down on the power of celebrity to influence the purchasing decisions of consumers. By some estimates, almost 20% of advertisements that have aired in the United States in recent years have featured celebrity endorsers, and that number is over twice as high in certain foreign markets*.

However, public figures, just like the rest of us, are human. They are everyday consumers with tastes and preferences for certain products and brands. Sponsorship and endorsement has become so deeply engrained in our society, that to the unsuspecting public, it can be difficult to differentiate between planned product placement and circumstantial cases of customer advocacy, and what in fact is neither. Given the amplifying nature of social media channels, we live in a world where more communication on brands come from their consumers, each powered with their own personal camera crew (aka their iPhone). This sort of personal power and the innate desire to "share" with ones personal community can place brands at the centre of sensitive/sensational pop culture issues. Take for example, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his very public affinity for Tim Hortons.

Mayor Ford, who has been in the public storm of late, has a long and well-noted association with Tim Hortons. Media scrums outside a local franchise, or public appearances with the Mayor holding a Tim’s coffee cup have become fixtures in the Canadian media. As a brand, Tim Horton’s receives constant free exposure in the public with its logo represented in footage and photography on a consistent basis. On the flip side, their brand is being aligned with a controversial and at times explosive personality. Given the mass awareness that Tim Hortons has in Canada, we'd be surprised if they were in any way looking at this scenario and even considering the potential "upside". Instead, we imagine that those in marketing and PR at Tim Horton's are doing their best to maintain their focus on their own communications and marketing efforts without engaging in anything related to Mayor Ford. In many ways, this example is just further proof of how deeply connected Tim Hortons is with Canadian culture. Further, if Tim Hortons were to engage the issue, they would be calling attention to what could easily be defended as a Canadian consumer enjoying their product at their own volition.

Today, the Tim Hortons brand is among the most trusted in Canada, partly due to their sponsorship and endorsement portfolio where their spend is focused on iconic Canadian properties like the NHL, CFL, and major Curling events. The brand's deep and organic association to Canadian communities, through programs like Timbit's hockey, has allowed them to build a meaningful connection with customers. Also, when the brand has decided to seek endorsement opportunities, they have chosen to partner with Sidney Crosby - someone who is naturally associated with Canadian values. Strategies like placing their brand in the same context as Canadian sport has elevated their level of trust to the point that any quasi-association with somebody like Mayor Ford is unlikely to have material impact.

That being said, the question remains: how should brands respond to the issue of unsolicited/unpaid celebrity endorsers? Should they respond at all?  There is a rich history of celebrities publicly stating their affinity for certain brands for no compensation, with key examples coming from hip-hop and pop music culture through song lyrics. Macklemore's #1 hit "Thrift Shop" led to an uptick in sales at Value Village, leading the chain to leverage the increased awareness for discount retail into advertising content that parodied the song. Likewise, according to the Los Angeles Times, Jay Z's hit-song “Tom Ford”, lead to a 155% increase in Google traffic for the fashion brand, boosting brand awareness. From the impact of Oprah's Book Club selections on book sales, to the effect that the prevalence of Dre Beats headphonesin NBA locker rooms has on headphone sales, there can be tremendous upside in brands being opportunistic in leveraging their unpaid brand ambassadors in creative/social channels. In the case of Mayor Ford and Tim Hortons, where the benefits of having an unpaid endorser are less clear, brands would be wise to follow the example of Tim's: don't comment or engage in the situation - stay on message with your communication strategy. As is the case with Tim's, sponsorships can be an important part of this equation.

So who stands to win in the relationship between Mayor Ford and Tim Hortons? The brand of Tim Hortons, as it stands today, is more trusted and has higher alignment with Canadian values than the brand of Rob Ford. Therefore, it is possible that the Mayor is indeed benefiting from this association by borrowing the equity of a great Canadian brand. We believe that Mayor Ford may be quite deliberate in his choice of coffee, versus a Starbucks or David’s Tea, as a way to send a message to his constituents and the public at large that Rob Ford is a man of the people.  Whether Tim Hortons receives any benefit remains to be seen.

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