Show me the love: The best brands

The best brands promise more than just value.

Drive north from New York state on the I-190, approaching the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge that spans the Niagara River, and you’ll find the sign. The white, reflective letters ? reversed out of official highway green ? direct you to the international border checkpoint with just three simple words: “Canada Tim Hortons.” The roadway signage experts apparently know a thing or two about the state of brand leadership in this country. The fact that Tim Hortons tops our best-managed brands lineup for the third year in a row only reinforces what the public already knows ? Canada is Tim’s Country. But if there’s one lesson we can learn from Tim’s, and other top brands such as Canadian Tire, WestJet Airlines and Cirque du Soleil, it’s that the most effective brands shape our entire experience, sometimes in surprising ways.

The brand leader’s canon begins with two all-important ingredients: the promise and delivery. Every brander knows the importance of shaping customer expectations with a relevant, easy-to-understand promise of value, whether it’s qualitative benefits (freshest, most comfortable, best style) or more functional traits (lowest cost, fastest response). Much harder is serving up that promise consistently, day in and day out. But a relevant value proposition that’s well executed is just the price of entry into the pantheon of iconic brands. Beyond marketing and operations, there are other forces that the most successful brands ? instinctively or consciously ? tap to shape our experience. The secret? Character and meaning, two words that rarely show up in the lexicon of business schools.

A brand’s character is defined by the qualities that make it distinctive and appealing. Great brands have great DNA ? deeply ingrained attributes that give them a unique flavour and manner. For example, there’s no mistaking a Cirque du Soleil experience, no matter how many locations or formats they explore. The in-cabin banter from WestJet’s flight crew sets up a far different experience than flying Air Canada. TD’s green comfy chair telegraphs a cosy, friendly banking relationship. Character need not be slick, but it does have to be distinguishing or authentic in some fashion. Well-managed brands nurture that authenticity. President’s Choice survived the departure of its high-profile pitchman by continuing to perpetuate the brand’s presidential character long after Dave Nichol (and his dog) left.

Character helps shape our perceptions; meaning shapes our relationships. In the book Making Meaning, the authors (principals with innovation firm Cheskin Research) write that for companies to achieve enduring competitive advantage, “they must address their customers’ essential human need for meaning.” That’s because consumers are increasingly seeking products and services that jibe “with their sense of how the world is, or should be.” In other words, the brands we value most are the ones that help us understand or connect to our world in some way.

Making Meaning identifies at least 15 categories with nearly universal appeal, and the best-managed brands in Canada neatly illustrate some of them. Cirque du Soleil definitely fits the “wonder” bill ? experiences that create a sense of awe. President’s Choice and Loblaws connect to “creative” pleasures. Tim Hortons, Canadian Tire and WestJet all seem to fulfill the need for a sense of community and equity ? that is, something for everyone, places where Everyman belongs. These values are particularly powerful for Canadians, according to Michael Adams, president of public opinion research firm Environics. In his book Fire and Ice, Adams argues that because Canadian society values peace, order and good government, it is also “the society whose people feel secure enough to acknowledge interdependence.” That interdependence is part of our communitarian rootsâ or our belief in the common good. So it’s not surprising that being embedded in the community is a strong suit for many of Canada’s best-managed brands.

Tim Hortons plays its community card particularly well. Every order of coffee and doughnuts comes with a large dollop of “always there” neighbourhood connections, support for special camps and community programs such as Timbits Minor Sports. Sure, it delivers on the good-value-for-money equation with great consistency. But we find greatness in Tim’s and other brands when we get that extra-special helping of character and meaningful connections with our experience.

Jeannette Hanna is vice-president, brand strategy, Cundari SFP.