Companies & Industries

The CIA, bin Laden and Tim Hortons advertising

How Tim Hortons went Hollywood.

Tims makes a subtle cameo on Homeland. I always pegged Saul as more of a Starbucks guy.

Somewhere in Washington, D.C., a group of Central Intelligence Agency operatives sit in a bunker-like room staring at dozens of screens monitoring CCTV and other video feeds of agents trailing suspected terrorists. The stakes are high and it’s a 24/7 surveillance operation. It’s obviously morning and an agent walks in with coffee for everyone. Tim Hortons coffee.

I’m used to seeing ol’ Timmy pop-up on TV in a hockey dressing room or trying to make me weep like a caffeine-deprived baby over the holidays, but in the middle of a top secret CIA operation? That’s what happened last week on the latest episode of Showtime’s critically acclaimed, award-winning cable show Homeland. Cue the double-double secret agent jokes.

Turns out this isn’t the only move Tim Hortons has made to get its products on the small and big screen lately. The company really stepped up its product placement game this year, increasing its efforts to build relationships with producers, even signing on with an Los Angeles-based product placement agency.

Tim’s head of public affairs, David Morelli, met with studio execs in L.A. earlier this year to tell the Tim Hortons story and work on building the brand’s American presence. “We recognized that brand placement was an increasingly important part of the overall marketing mix, particularly in the U.S. where we’re looking to raise awareness,” says Morelli. “[The studios] are interested in building into their TV shows or films authentic settings. So if it makes sense that a can of Tim Hortons coffee is on the counter in a kitchen, or someone is walking down the street with a cup of Tims coffee, it makes their production all that more real.”

The company’s conversion to the church of product placement started a couple years ago when the producers of How I Met Your Mother—one of the head writers is Canadian—called up about a scene where the two characters played by Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders (also Canadian) go to a coffee shop, and they wanted to make it a Tims. “We got a lot of buzz off that and got a lot of people talking, so that really opened our eyes to the possibilities,” says Morelli.

And it’s not limited to the small screen. The brand also worked with producers of the upcoming film Zero Dark Thirty, chronicling the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. Not exactly the most obvious choice for a product placement, but Morelli says it was an opportunity that met the company’s goals for realism. “Part of the film takes place in Afghanistan and they show the part of the military base with some of the commercial outlets, which is where we were,” he says. “We’re also on five or six U.S. military bases, including Fort Knox and Norfolk Naval base, so it makes sense.”

The brand has also tapped social media, particularly Twitter, to engage with celebrities like Justin Bieber and Deadmau5, and the exposure to their millions of followers that comes with it. “It puts your brand in a place that seems natural and people seem to be more receptive to that,” says Morelli. “On Homeland, it was a subtle appearance but we saw immediately on Twitter that there were plenty of people who recognized it.”

With Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty, Tims proves it’s not afraid to put the brand into some tough places. Now if they really want to impress me, find a way to get a double-double on Dexter.