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.

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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."


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