Despite all the positive feelings that the country engenders abroad, Brand Canada has traditionally underperformed on the world stage. It is a problem that hasn’t been lost on business leaders, who gather to discuss the matter with dispiriting regularity. However, the nation is entering a new era, with the particularly brand-conscious Justin Trudeau at the helm. Canada’s exporters have a stronger hand than ever before; all they need to do now is work on their presentation.
A good place to start would be the archive of the country’s best logos, compiled by the Ottawa-based design studio Northern Army. This research identifies some of the strengths and weaknesses of Canadian branding. “You can see that Canada went through an especially strong period of graphic design in the 1960s and 1970s,” says Northern Army’s Rene Antunes. “And it’s those brand identities that still speak to a lot of people today.”
Part of the issue with many of these marks, however, is that they have failed to travel well. “Most are only recognisable to people in Canada,” says Antunes. While there’s a role for government in promoting Canada as a producer of quality goods, the nation’s companies should pay more attention to the image that they cultivate. To help, we’ve compiled some of the key tropes used by a collection of companies across Canada.
Key trope 1
Brands and institutions using this trope:Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Loblaws grocery chain, City of Toronto, Go Transit, CTV and OC Transpo.
The logos that resonate most with Canadians tend to represent institutions, not companies; they echo a time when branding went hand in hand with nation building. With so few people spread out over so much space, transport and mass communication have played a crucial role in binding the country together. Hence the fame of Burton Kramer’s 1974 logo for national broadcaster CBC. Today’s version of the radiating “C” shows fidelity to Kramer’s original concept.
Key trope 2
Brands using this trope:Air Canada, Molson Canadian beer, Canada Goose luxury parkas, Toronto Blue Jays baseball team, Alleghanys maple syrup and General Mills breakfast and snack foods.
Choosing the red maple leaf as the Canadian flag’s centrepiece in 1965 was a branding masterstroke: it’s recognisable and non-threatening. As no shortage of marketers have discovered, you can stick a little maple leaf beside almost anything and voilà – instant Canada. For a country with a sizeable chip on its shoulder vis-à-vis its overbearing neighbour to the south, it can also scan as “not American”.
Key trope 3
Beavers, bears and other fauna
Brands and agencies using this trope:Roots clothing company, the Vancouver Canucks ice-hockey team, Hudson’s Bay Company, Sorel boots, Toronto Zoo and Moose Knuckles parkas.
A national animal is typically chosen for its mythological or majestic qualities. England claims the lion, the US the bald eagle. Among so many noble, outsized and potentially ferocious creatures roaming its landmass – moose, wolves and bears – somehow Canada picked the ungainly looking beaver, the continent’s largest rodent. (A senator objecting to the beaver’s privileged status once referred to it as a “dentally defective rat”.) There is at least a fair claim in history though: Canada’s colonisation by Europeans was spurred by the fur trade, the most prized commodity of which was the lustrous pelt of the Castor canadensis.
Over time the beaver’s reputation for humble industriousness seemed to agree with Canadians’ emerging sense of self- identity, eventually adorning the country’s first postage stamp. Modern brands adopting its image, including the Toronto- based clothier Roots, are hoping to tap into nostalgic feelings for vintage “Canadiana”, as well as some hazy affection for the rustic or wild. With 125 shops in Asia and at one point the contract to outfit the US Olympic team, Roots is a rare example of a company leveraging Canadian imagery for a truly global audience.
The beaver’s cartoonish physical features and the fact that it’s often a nuisance to cottage owners have ensured that other iconic fauna still get a lot of love. Not surprisingly, bears have proved a favourite with small-town hockey teams and rugged footwear brands such as Sorel and Kodiak. Meanwhile, Moose Knuckles, a young parka brand with genuinely global ambitions, has plumped for the hoof-print of a moose as its memorable logo.
Key trope 4
Mountains, rivers and other natural iconography
Brands and agencies using this trope:Canada Council for the Arts, Tourism British Columbia, Rocky Mountaineer rail tours, City of Montréal and Province of Ontario.
Given the huge image bank of natural scenery to draw upon, it’s notable that more Canadian brands don’t put it to better use. Perhaps it’s to do with avoiding the obvious clichés about the country, as well as the fact that about 80 per cent of the population now lives in cities mainly clustered within shouting distance of the US border.
Tourism agencies and outfitters are the most obvious purveyors of this trope, hoping to evoke romantic ideas of an unspoiled wilderness. Attempts to be overly illustrative, however, such as Tourism British Columbia (TBC) having a sun rising over mountains behind an ocean, can possess all the sophistication of clip art. (TBC recently discontinued that image in favour of a grabbier typographical treatment of its slogan: “Super, Natural British Columbia”.) A more effective execution can be seen in the brand mark for Rocky Mountaineer, which shows overlapping mountain ranges that subtly suggest the company’s initials.
The challenge with this sort of imagery is compressing the country’s vast topography into a scalable image. In this case, less is usually more. A case in point: the Government of Ontario’s modernist trillium logo, after the provincial flower, which was recently updated for the worse. As Northern Army’s Antunes says: “Unfortunately we’ve been moving away from a lot of great logos of the past, with their use of fat lines that hinted at forms rather than overly describing them. People seem to feel that they have to change them for the sake of changing them and now we have this problem of cramming in too much detail.”