Advertising in Canada

Many U.S.-based companies and media agencies with intentions to start doing business in Canada don’t fully appreciate the differences between the two countries. They wrongly assume that an advertising strategy that has been successful in the U.S. can and should be applied to Canada.

The justification for this point of view often involves the countries’ close proximity and economic interconnections, as well as the fact that Canadians and Americans consume much of the same media content. Some have gone as far as calling Canadians “disarmed Americans with healthcare”.

It’s true: Canada and the U.S. are geographically and economically entwined. But they are also culturally distinct in several ways. When it comes to media, Canadians have unique consumption habits. Companies that understand the small – but important – differences between Canadian and American consumer attitudes will reap the benefits. Let’s start with the differences between Canadian and American media consumption.

WHAT ARE THE KEY DIFFERENCES?

There’s no question that Canadians love American music, film, television, and digital content. The film industry even sees both markets as connected: Canadian viewership is included in U.S. domestic box office gross earnings reports. Quebec is an exception. It has its own star-system and people there tend to be ambivalent at best toward U.S. media.

When it comes to TV, Canadians watch less per week (29.3 hours) than Americans (32.6 hours)1. This fact is reflected in the advertising spend on Canadian TV stations: only $103 (CAD) per capita is spent annually on TV advertising in Canada, versus $198 (USD) per capita in the U.S.2 So while TV is a still a big part of Canadian life, Canadians are not as tied to it as consumers in the U.S. What about the classic media vehicles (i.e. radio and newspaper)? Interestingly, Canadians listen to far more radio than Americans (17.75 vs. 10.15 hours per week), but spend less time reading newspapers than Americans. The average Canadian spends 3.15 hours per week reading the newspaper, while the average American reads the newspaper for 3.38 hours per week.

Canadians are spending a lot more time online than Americans (27.8 compared to 15.6 hours per week)3. Moreover, Canadians and Americans spend their time online differently. Canadians are more social, spending a large proportion of their Internet time (25 percent) on social media websites, while Americans tend to spend more time consuming online videos and other forms of entertainment.

All of this suggests that TV and newspaper advertisements might not be as effective in Canada, but radio and online ads (on both mobile and desktop platforms) might be even more effective than in the U.S. But it’s not just about the medium – the approach to connecting emotionally with Canadian consumers also needs to be different.

Advertisers should take heed to media critic Bill Mann’s observations; while TV ads in the U.S. commonly involve gunplay, blood, and destruction, Canadian commercials are typically humorous, whimsical, subtle, and clever.

Canadians and Americans are culturally distinct

For instance, there are some big differences in attitudes toward violence. This might have to do with the fact that gun violence is far more prominent in the U.S. The U.S. experienced one firearm-related homicide for every 28,000 people in 2011, whereas Canada saw just one death for every 215,000 people. Gun ownership is also far more common in the U.S. than in Canada.

Overall, Americans tend to be more nationalistic. Canadians are certainly patriotic, but tend to celebrate the country’s diversity rather than the liberty and freedom that are so important to Americans. Canada has a more diverse population: 20% of Canadian citizens are foreign-born (and 60% are from Asia) compared to just 13% of American citizens (of which 29% are Mexican immigrants).

Sport-watching preferences are quite different. Americans are serious NFL fans, and also watch a lot of basketball and baseball. Canadians are unique in terms of their sport preferences; Canada is nearly the only country in the world where ice hockey is more popular than any other sport.

WHAT DISTINGUISHES CANADIAN & AMERICAN TASTES?

There are some unique rules that companies have to follow when advertising in Canada. First, all product labeling must feature information in both French and English, and both languages must be equally prominent. When advertising in Quebec, the rules are even stricter; all advertisements must be at least two-thirds in French.

A relatively new law designed to free Canadians from spam is also worth noting. Canada’s anti-spam legislation (CASL) affects all companies that advertise on electronic channels. Before sending an electronic message to an individual, companies must have the recipient’s consent, must clearly identify themselves as the sender, and must offer a mechanism to unsubscribe. Moreover, all advertisements must be free from false or misleading information.

You get the picture — Canadians are different. So, when approaching the Canadian market, use caution.

There have been several recent incidences of companies failing to export their U.S. business model to Canada. Perhaps the most well publicized example is Target. While their failure in Canada had less to do with their approach to Canadian consumers and more to do with poor timing and excessive competition, they also failed to recognize some key Canadian shopping tendencies.

Canadian shoppers have developed a reputation for being cost-conscious. Many are used to crossing the border to take advantage of lower retail prices in U.S. stores. Canadian consumers notice when stores – like Target – impose higher prices on goods in Canadian stores. Beware: the list of companies that have failed to launch in Canada is long. More examples include: Sony stores, RadioShack, Kmart, Big Lots, Sam’s Club, Columbia House, and many more.

The common theme in their failures is that they treated the expansion into the Canadian market as a natural evolution. It’s not. Like any international expansion, it requires careful planning and an eye towards the cultural differences between Canadians and Americans.

QUESTIONS FOR US?

At Media-Corps, we are experts in advertising to a Canadian audience. We specialize in helping companies from the U.S. expand their influence to the Canadian market.

CONTACT US to learn how we can help your company develop a marketing approach suitable for the Canadian context.

References

  1. See Canadian Media Usage Study (CMUST), by IAB Canada Nov 2014 for Canadian TV data and Statistica.com for data on the U.S.
  2. Canadian Media Director’s Council 2014-2015 Media Digest.
  3. Ibid.
  4. ComScore Global Mobile Report.
  5. Rudnick, Natasha. (October 23, 2014). Why Canada’s gun culture is different and why its shootings shock America. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/storyline/wp/2014/10/23/why-canadas-gun-culture-is-different-and-why-its-shootings-shock-america/ (Accessed September 4, 2015).
  6. Stromberg, Joseph. (October 14, 2014). 40 maps and charts that explain sports in America. Vox. http://www.vox.com/2014/10/14/6951261/sports-maps-charts (Accessed September 4, 2015
  7. See Gowlings for a good overview: http://www.slideshare.net/gowlings/canadian-compliance-essentials-webinar.
  8. See Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation website for more information: http://fightspam.gc.ca/eic/site/030.nsf/eng/home.
  9. QMI Agency. (January 15, 2015). U.S. retailers that failed in Canada. Toronto Sun. http://www.torontosun.com/2015/01/15/us-retailers-that-failed-in-canada. (Accessed September 4, 2015).