A Tim Hortons cup is seen inside a Tim Hortons restaurant in Toronto on March 6, 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic started to hit Canada last month, Tim Hortons eyed its planned upcoming advertising and decided it didn’t quite work anymore amid mass restaurant closures, wide-scale layoffs and physical distancing guidelines all that have upended life as Canadians knew it. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

A Tim Hortons cup is seen inside a Tim Hortons restaurant in Toronto on March 6, 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic started to hit Canada last month, Tim Hortons eyed its planned upcoming advertising and decided it didn’t quite work anymore amid mass restaurant closures, wide-scale layoffs and physical distancing guidelines all that have upended life as Canadians knew it. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Companies rush to pivot advertising plans during COVID-19 pandemic

Corporate spots acknowledging the pandemic have proliferated on TV breaks in recent weeks

As the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread, Tim Hortons reviewed its advertising plans and decided they no longer made sense as store closures, wide-scale layoffs and physical distancing upended life in Canada.

Instead, the coffee chain went back to the drawing board for two new ads. One informs customers how to buy doughnuts, double doubles and other products without going inside a restaurant, while the other follows Tim Hortons trucks delivering free coffee and doughnuts to essential workers.

“When we looked at what media we had committed to, we said: ‘There’s a better way,’” said Hope Bagozzi, chief marketing officer at Restaurant Brands International, the parent company for Tim Hortons.

Corporate spots acknowledging the pandemic have proliferated on TV breaks in recent weeks as companies grapple with how to fill previously purchased ad slots and what, if anything, they want to to say. How they proceed varies from brand to brand, but no one wants to risk appearing tone deaf during a national crisis.

“A lot of advertising — whether we want to admit it or not — is built on what has worked in the past,” said James Ansley, executive creative director at Grey Canada.

“It feels like right now, the rule book has been completely thrown out and we’re all trying to find our way through this.”

In the early days of the pandemic, Ansley saw companies do things that “felt a little bit … lacking in meaning,” such as spacing out their logos in a nod to physical distancing. McDonald’s Brazil, for example, separated its golden arches mid-March, but later reversed the decision after facing criticism.

Companies are now trying to do something meaningful, said Ansley, by trying to help people feel safe and secure.

Utilitarian ads are one such attempt.

Tim Hortons released one in late March with an employee explaining drive-thrus are open and that app and delivery partners are accepting orders.

That ad was designed as “an accessibility spot” to answer questions the company was receiving from customers, said Bagozzi.

It’s notable that such ads aren’t geared toward selling products.

Ford Canada, for instance, created an ad thanking workers, and closing with information on how customers leasing or financing vehicles through its credit program could receive help.

BMO ran an ad thanking “all the front-liners for keeping our lives moving” without mentioning any banking services. A&W created an ad with a similar message of gratitude to its restaurant staff, essential workers and everyday Canadians “staying home to help stop the spread” that doesn’t show anything more than the fast-food chain’s spokesman, presumably in his own home, with a partial logo visible on the wall behind him.

The company wanted the gratitude to be authentic, genuine and dominant, said CEO Susan Senecal.

“That’s how we felt at that moment in time and we just wanted to express that completely,” she said. “We didn’t think anything more was necessary.”

A&W scrapped its original plans in this “very unusual set of circumstances,” Senecal said, and decided a message of thanks worked better.

The brands Ansley works with have “taken the foot off the pedal as far as pushing product,” which he thinks is the right move as staggering numbers of people apply for emergency government assistance.

More than one million jobs disappeared in March, according to Statistics Canada, and the unemployment rate increased 2.2 percentage points to 7.8 per cent.

“There’s a lot of people that are facing those realities,” Ansley said. ”To go out with messaging that is tone deaf to that, I think, is completely wrong.”

Some brands have paused all their advertising in light of the pandemic, while others are trying to figure out if they have something to say, he said.

“I think really it’s just being true to your brand and your brand’s purpose.”

An example is a Dove Canada ad that presents a series of headshots of health-care workers, many of their faces showing indents from wearing their protective masks. The tagline “courage is beautiful” appears with the company’s logo and a list of donations the company is making to such workers.

The company’s long-runing “real beauty” campaign bills itself as a movement challenging traditional notions of attractiveness.

“That’s what makes it really powerful,” said Ansley. “It’s timely. It is a beautiful message. But most importantly, it just stays true to who they are as a brand.”

Similarly, Tim Hortons showcased its corporate values with the footage of real employees offering coffee and doughnuts to health-care workers, said Bagozzi.

The company didn’t know how it would use the footage when it first gathered it in March, she said, but after seeing the reaction decided to share it broadly.

“There was just such a nice reciprocal generosity and gratefulness that we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so lovely. It’s so Canadian. We definitely want to share this.”

As the pandemic unfolds, it’s unclear what the future holds for advertising.

Tim Hortons ran a new ad recently offering a free pack of Timbits if customers spend at least $10. It’s intended as a nice gesture for families buying a meal, said Bagozzi.

The eatery is also looking at the activities it has planned for the rest of the year, especially the next few months, and asking what is most relevant and appropriate to be doing, she said.

The same can be said for A&W’s future advertising plans.

“As the situation continues to evolve, we’ll continue to think about what’s the most important thing to say next and try and do a good job of that,” said Senecal.

Aleksandra Sagan, The Canadian Press

CoronavirusTim Hortons

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(File Photo)
Calling all Elkford non-profits: Bursary Program registration is now open

The bursary gives $1,000 to a local non-profit to assist with community-related projects or programs

(File Photo)
Elkford Business Walks to begin in February

Topics of discussion include changes, successes, and the impact of COVID-19 on businesses

(File Photo)
KES brings employment education to those over 55

The Encore program is targeted to adults past traditional retirement years looking for employment

Angel Flight East Kootenay was one of the three recipients of funding from the inaugural Giving Event. (Photo Contributed)
100 local women collect $10,500 for community organizations

The 100 WWC Fernie donated $3,500 to three grassroots organizations via their first Giving Event

Colleen Braconnier and her care aid, Karla McKie, outside of Rocky Mountain Village. (Soranne Floarea/ The Free Press)
‘We have such a good group here’: Local senior keeps head held high throughout pandemic

COVID-19 hasn’t stopped RMV resident, Colleen Braconnier, from remaining positive

A scene from “Canada and the Gulf War: In their own words,” a video by The Memory Project, a program of Historica Canada, is shown in this undated illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Historica Canada
New video marks Canada’s contributions to first Gulf War on 30th anniversary

Veterans Affairs Canada says around 4,500 Canadian military personnel served during the war

U.S. military units march in front of the Capitol, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021 in Washington, as they rehearse for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, which will be held at the Capitol on Wednesday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Biden aims for unifying speech at daunting moment for U.S.

President Donald Trump won’t be there to hear it

Williams Lake physician Dr. Ivan Scrooby and medical graduate student Vionarica Gusti hold up the COSMIC Bubble Helmet. Both are part of the non-profit organization COSMIC Medical which has come together to develop devices for treating patients with COVID-19. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Group of B.C. doctors, engineers developing ‘bubble helmet’ for COVID-19 patients

The helmet could support several patients at once, says the group

A 17-year-old snowmobiler used his backcountry survival sense in preparation to spend the night on the mountain near 100 Mile House Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021 after getting lost. (South Cariboo Search and Rescue Facebook photo)
Teen praised for backcountry survival skills after getting lost in B.C.’s Cariboo mountains

“This young man did everything right after things went wrong.”

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on December 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
No place for ‘far right’ in Conservative Party, Erin O’Toole says

O’Toole condemned the Capitol attack as ‘horrifying’ and sought to distance himself and the Tories from Trumpism

A passer by walks in High Park, in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. This workweek will kick off with what’s fabled to be the most depressing day of the year, during one of the darkest eras in recent history. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
‘Blue Monday’ getting you down? Exercise may be the cure, say experts

Many jurisdictions are tightening restrictions to curb soaring COVID-19 case counts

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19: Provinces work on revised plans as Pfizer-BioNTech shipments to slow down

Anita Anand said she understands and shares Canadians’ concerns about the drug company’s decision

Tourists take photographs outside the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday August 26, 2011. A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging the provincial government to not pursue plans to ban domestic travel to fight the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. travel ban will harm struggling tourism sector, says industry coalition

B.C. government would have to show evidence a travel ban is necessary

Most Read