After red cup controversy, holiday marketing a challenge for Canadian retailers

TORONTO -- When something as simple as a red Starbucks cup stirred a controversy stateside over how businesses mark the approach of Christmas, Canadian retailers took notice.

See Full Article

Canucks may not be as expressive over such matters as their southern neighbours, but retailers across the country are well aware that how they market the holidays in an increasingly multicultural society is a sensitive issue.

"Retail is really a reflection of the culture and society we're in," said Michael LeBlanc, senior vice-president of marketing with the Retail Council of Canada. "Every year there's some sort of catalyst to that discussion -- turns out this year, it's a coffee cup."

The way in which retailers approach the weeks leading up to the end of the year has evolved over time as businesses respond to customer reactions. This year's Starbucks controversy, which hogged headlines in the U.S. in November, shone a spotlight on the issue.

The company typically has its red holiday cups adorned with snowflakes, Christmas ornaments or reindeer, but opted for a minimalist design this year -- red with nothing but its green logo.

Executives said they wanted to embrace "simplicity and quietness." But some religious conservatives in the U.S. saw the new cup as a blow against tradition.

The entire episode underscored how carefully businesses need to consider their holiday marketing.

"It's very important to frame your brand around the right message for the right time and the right place," said LeBlanc. "The most amount of thought in a retailer in general goes into the holiday and Christmas season."

There was a time in Canada, about a decade ago, when retailers who didn't want to offend any segment of the country's multicultural society removed the word Christmas from much of their marketing altogether, said LeBlanc.

"The reaction was 'let's be sensitive to all the different elements, let's call it 'holiday,"' he explained. "The feedback from customers, most of whom weren't celebrating Christmas, was 'look, it's fine to call it Christmas."'

Businesses in Canada now appear to have permission from most Canadians -- Christian or otherwise -- to use the word Christmas and related symbols as Dec. 25 approaches without it being taken as an affront to those who don't celebrate the occasion, said LeBlanc.

"Sites now say 'the holidays are here' and truly, I think that's a reflection of the season," said LeBlanc. "But then as you get in closer, you hone in on Christmas."

The progression in marketing messages, particularly the broad use of the term "holidays" in the weeks before Christmas, reflects businesses taking the least offensive approach, said one observer.

"It encompasses everything from Jewish holidays that happen in that time period, to Christian holidays that happen in that time period, to people that just see it as not related to these cultural traditions but more a week's break during the winter," said Darren Dahl, a professor of marketing at the University of British Columbia.

Dahl noted, however, that the cautious approach can still offend some -- as the Starbucks controversy demonstrated.

"People who really do celebrate Christmas can get upset that their tradition is getting pushed around a bit," he said. "But I do think there is a silent majority out there that's just fine celebrating all holidays."

Much of what retailers currently use in their messaging comes from their customers, noted another observer.

"We don't like to offend others all that much," said Michael Mulvey, a marketing professor a the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management.

"So in terms of what's going to happen, it would be easier to look at how Canadians think about being Canadian and the sense of Canadian identity more, instead of their religious identity."

And for those who get riled by what they might see as a dilution of tradition, Mulvey offers a suggestion.

"The mall is not the only place that Christmas has meaning," he said. "Maybe that will encourage some people to go back to church or maybe they can spend time with families."


Latest Economic News

  • Mortgage rule changes were 'the right thing to do,' Morneau says

    Economic CBC News
    Finance Minister Bill Morneau says recent changes to mortgage rules will keep Canada's economy secure and protect Canadians in the long run. In a speech to the Toronto Region Board of Trade, the finance minister defended the steps the government has taken since his swearing in last November. Source
  • Norbord and Louisiana-Pacific Corp. to exhange ownership Quebec of mills

    Economic CTV News
    TORONTO -- Norbord Inc. (TSX:OSB) and Louisiana-Pacific Corp. have agreed to exchange ownership of two wood panel mills in Quebec. Financial terms weren't disclosed. Louisiana-Pacific's mill in Chambord, Que., is bigger than Norbord's oriented strand board mill in Val-d'Ore, Que. Source
  • Singapore Michelin-starred food hawker to start chain

    Economic CTV News
    A Singapore street-food chef who was awarded a Michelin star this year announced Friday a partnership with a multinational culinary company to offer customers across Asia a taste of his prize-winning braised chicken dish. Chan Hon Meng announced in a joint press conference with Singapore-based Hersing Culinary, which holds the Asia franchise for the popular Tim Ho Wan chain, that the partners will collaborate on a new Singaporean restaurant before expanding across the region. Source
  • Asian stocks mixed due to Wall Street gloom

    Economic CTV News
    TOKYO -- Asian shares were mixed Friday as a weaker yen sent Japan's benchmark higher, despite persisting gloom from Wall Street's recent declines. KEEPING SCORE: Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 gained 0.6 per cent to 17,446.41 and the Shanghai Composite index inched up less than 0.1 per cent to 3,112.91. Source
  • Global stocks steady, dollar rises ahead of U.S. GDP data

    Economic CTV News
    TOKYO -- Global stock markets were steady and the dollar made further gains Friday ahead of a report on U.S. economic growth in July-September. KEEPING SCORE: Germany's DAX edged down 0.3 per cent to 10,687 while Britain's FTSE 100 was flat at 6,986. Source
  • Amazon using Prime service to court food shoppers

    Economic CTV News
    NEW YORK -- Amazon wants you to order your turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce online this Thanksgiving - its latest effort to make its Prime subscription service a central part of food shopping, much the way it's done for other consumer goods. Source
  • Police arrest, evict oil pipeline protesters in North Dakota

    Economic CTV News
    CANNON BALL, N.D. - A months-long protest over the Dakota Access oil pipeline reached its most chaotic pitch yet when hundreds of law enforcement officers moved in to force activists off private property. Thursday's nearly six-hour operation dramatically escalated the dispute over Native American rights and the project's environmental impact, with officers in riot gear firing bean bags and pepper spray. Source
  • Feds defend Pacific NorthWest LNG decision as court challenges filed

    Economic CTV News
    Catherine McKenna, second left, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, speaks while flanked by Jim Carr, from left to right, Minister of Natural Resources, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, after the federal government announced approval of the Pacific NorthWest LNG project, at the Sea Island Coast Guard Base, in Richmond, B.C. Source
  • United Way loses top ranking as America's largest charity

    Economic CTV News
    NEW YORK -- United Way, ranked as America's largest charity for all but one of the past 25 years, has been emphatically knocked from that spot by Fidelity Charitable, the leader of a rapidly growing philanthropic sector that is transforming the way many Americans give. Source
  • Meet George Jetson: Uber sees flying commuters in 10 years

    Economic CBC News
    Flying commuters like George Jetson could be whizzing to work through the sky less than 10 years from now, according to ride-services provider Uber, which believes the future of transportation is literally looking up. Uber Technologies Inc released a white paper on Thursday envisioning a future in which commuters hop onto a small aircraft, take off vertically and within minutes arrive at their destinations. Source