What Starbucks Can Learn From a Canadian Competitor

Tim Hortons Pushes the Frontiers of Fan Fanaticism

By Published on .

Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
These days, life for Starbucks is all about store closings and customer-service failings. But for a coffee competitor from the North, life is about trying to use intense customer loyalty to help eat some of Starbucks' share.

Assuming, for a moment, that Facebook fan clubs serve as a good proxy for overall brand advocacy, let's ponder why Canada-based Tim Hortons pushes the frontiers of fan fanaticism. Why all the intense loyalty and evangelism over a fast-food joint named after a former hockey star? We're just talking coffee, donuts and sandwiches, right? Can't we just settle for McDonald's or Dunkin' Donuts or even Starbucks?

I couldn't resist swinging the hockey stick myself while road-tripping this month on a summer family pilgrimage to New York's Adirondacks. Eager and curious, we stopped by a Tim Hortons outside of Buffalo -- one of nearly 400 in the northeastern U.S.

The Buffalo franchise was mobbed, and the drive-through line in particular brought back Southern California high-school memories of the congested, almost-communal In-N-Out Burger line. But in full pursuit of the "total" experience, drive-through would not do. So I kissed the wife and kids goodbye and walked inside, only to encounter an equally long, yet somewhat impressive, line. So with time to boot, I started quizzing folks around me about the "secret sauce" of the brand's success.

"Good food -- always." "Great menu." "Friendly employees." "You mean, you haven't been to a Tim Hortons?" "The coffee is addictive."

Excuse me? "I can't get enough of it?" one repeated.

There wasn't total consensus. One guy from London, standing in back of me, disagreed on the coffee point and insisted that Starbucks is better, although it's worth reiterating that this cool Brit was salivating over Tim Hortons' other menu items.

One could argue Tim Hortons is like a Canadian mash-up of McDonald's and Starbucks (without the paid WiFi). Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised with the value-priced menu, and with five hungry mouths to feed I wasn't shy about "sampling" the full range of options. The place was operationally clean and the two-stage order process maximized interaction with the well-trained employees.

And those things do come to word-of-mouth and brand advocacy.

Lots of folks were just hanging out. Consistent with the corporate ethos that allows that, I also noticed that the walls throughout were loaded with "community"-oriented stuff: baseball-team photos, service plaques and the like.

"Tim Hortons has practically become the so-called third space in Canada. It's the space where people congregate and have conversations -- especially as mom-and-pop shops disappear. And being a Canadian brand there's a strong sense of advocacy," said Jon Mamela, a former P&G interactive researcher and now director of product and service strategy for Toronto-based Fairmont Hotels.

"The Tim Hortons restaurants are Canada personified. They are efficient, dependable vis-a-vis being always open, conversational -- particularly in small towns -- and generally friendly and value-conscious," explained Sean Moffitt, president of Agent Wildfire, one of Canada's top word-of-mouth agencies and former VP-marketing for Molson Canadian.

Moffitt goes so far as to suggest the brand is chiseled into Canada's cultural iconography. "As Canadians, we're a little bit insecure culturally, given U.S. media and cultural domination," he said. So "whether it's the CBC -- our TV network -- hockey [or] Olympic victory, we cling to our remaining cultural icons. Tim's is one of them."
Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of the forthcoming book "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (Doubleday). He's a former co-leader of P&G interactive marketing, the founder of PlanetFeedback.com and co-founder of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). This is the first of a bi-weekly column looking at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control. Pete's blogs include ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com and Tell3000.com.

Facebook advocacy
It's worth asking here whether Tim Hortons is executing what Starbucks is trying to rediscover. Even though it's a chain, the brand -- its mission, its people, its community ethos, even its interaction-rich and user-friendly website -- comes across as uniquely authentic. And the appreciation for its authenticity shines in the Facebook forums in particular. Yes, brands like McDonald's and Starbucks have more fans in total, but Tim Hortons takes the cinnamon donut when you look at total fans relative to total outlets. And the fanaticism is notable, if not a bit scary.

Tim Hortons for Our Troops: 15,500 members
Biodegradable Cups at Tim Hortons: 10,300 members
Addicted to Tim Hortons: 9,000 members
Tim Hortons Rules of Ordering and More: 5,600 members
Addicted to Tim Hortons #2: 5,000 members
Tim Hortons Is Like Religion to Me: 1,900 members

"There is one place that we can all rely on to always be there for us," says the introduction to the Addicted to Tim Hortons group. "Admit it, Timmies is freggin amazing, it is our home away from home and if you find yourself there every night, or at least 3 times a day, then baby, you're addicted!"

In fairness, there are a few cracks in the ice worth calling out. When the chain fired an employee for giving away free food to a crying baby, fans, onlookers and the media pounced on it. And not unlike Starbucks, the brand has also been challenged with sticking to its standards and the reliable look and feel while growing at a record pace. Preserving authenticity and the original root drivers of appeal is no easy task when charged with huge growth objectives. Just ask Howard Schultz.

But for now, there's an important story behind this Tim Hortons brand. Great food, good value, strong community support and an icon hero make for a fast-growing operation.
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