Lists & Rankings

McCain Foods: An old favourite freshens up

Tied to Canada.

McCainWhat could be more down-to-earth than a family from New Brunswick descended from potato farmers? Not much, apparently. McCain Foods embodies that humble, unpretentious image, and it’s a big part of why the company is among Canada’s most reputable brands. McCain Foods made a surprising leap in the ranking this year to third place among Canadian brands, up from seventh last year. Amid international companies, it ended up in 18th place. Not bad, especially considering it didn’t rank at all last year.

It’s hard to know exactly what propelled McCain Foods higher. A push that began in 2010 toward natural ingredients in its products—under the marketing banner “It’s all good”—could be helping, but the truth is McCain Foods is a remarkably consistent company when it comes to messaging and its brand values. Survey respondents agreed with the characterization of the McCain Foods brand as friendly, straightforward, and simple. “If you think about what Canadians like in their brands, it’s that sense that they’re the boy and girl next door,” says Alan Middleton, assistant professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business. Never mind that the McCain family is now among the country’s wealthiest clans; their creation has retained its modest ethos.

Illustrations by Remi Geoffroi

Illustrations by Remi Geoffroi

Consider the company’s logo. It remains virtually unchanged since brothers Harrison and Wallace founded McCain Foods in 1956. The looping script and yellow starburst may look a little dated, conveying a 1950s kitsch, but it has nevertheless bred familiarity with Canadians by virtue of being around for decades. Interestingly, the company unveiled a new logo in the United Kingdom this year, ditching the starburst for a more contemporary look. Such a move would be riskier in Canada, given the company’s long history here.

Despite a brand that adheres to the past in some ways, McCain Foods earned relatively high marks for innovation in the study. It has figured out numerous uses for potatoes over the years (shaping them into smiley faces, for example) and branched into categories beyond French fries, such as the Harvest Splendour line of frozen vegetable side dishes. Though it probably wasn’t top of mind for Canadians taking the survey, McCain Foods is also adept at tailoring products for international markets, such as introducing idli and sambar (made with rice and lentils) in India.

Perhaps the biggest change began when McCain Foods started reformulating its products to rid them of incomprehensible additives and preservatives. The move was a big hit with Canadians, although the “natural” ingredients trend is no longer as novel as it was back in 2010. McCain Foods will eventually have to try something new to stand out. But so long as it maintains its humble roots, McCain Foods will probably always have a spot in the hearts and freezers of the nation.

What Canadians want (besides a great product)

What do Canadians value most in a brand? After factoring in the quality of a company’s products and services, citizenship and governance are the next biggest influences, reports Rob Jekeliek of the Reputation Institute. “Those are things Canadians seem to really value in companies,” he says, noting that consumers may be placing a premium on these two factors since the financial crash of 2008. Not surprisingly, the highest-ranked brands on our Canadian list fared well in these two categories—Canadian Tire, for instance, earned high marks for citizenship, likely because of community-focused initiatives like Jumpstart, its charitable-giving program.