What you need to know about launching in Canada

Our pre-launch work for Lyft got us thinking about what it takes for brands to successfully launch in Canada. Beyond Timbits as a strategy staple, we have some other key points to keep in mind.


If you think back to a year ago, you’ll remember that the headlines everywhere being held hostage by Trump’s absurd travel ban. Canadians followed the stories with mouths agape, counting our blessings while empathizing deeply with our American neighbours. Being in the agency world meant we were not only following the developing news surrounding the policy, but the reactions brands were having. You’ll remember that one brand managed to shine brightly amid this total shit storm. That brand was Lyft. For many Canadians, this was the first time that they had heard of them. We saw the #DeleteUber messages populating social media and read the U.S. articles calling for Uber users to switch to Lyft, but we had no such option. Lyft was a stateside ridesharing platform that didn’t exist here. It was from this day forward that we started wishing, praying and hoping that the company, with its tech-forward thinking and strong core values, would make its way north.

Lyft sat at the top of our dream client list for the majority of 2017, so when they came to us asking for help with a pre-launch messaging and branding project we naturally had to pinch ourselves. The exercise involved thinking deeply about Canadians, specifically Torontonians, and what Lyft would need to know to win us over. While our advice got pretty specific, ranging from insights on the TTC, Trinity Bellwoods, and Timbits, there are some key takeaways we concluded would ring true for any brand planning a Canadian launch.

We love local.

From our brands to our celebrities to our trends, Canadians lean into and champion all things homegrown. Depending on where you are in the country, each community will have a specific list of their favourite things that only a local would know. Take Toronto for example. Only we would know that getting a reservation at the latest Grant van Gameren restaurant is a hopeless pursuit (but worth waiting in line for) or that showing up to a picnic in Trinity Bellwoods Park without a locally brewed craft beer would be a faux pas. Our art, fashion and music scene reflects the artists and establishments we know and love and who occupy our Instagram feeds, and our pride for local sports teams is unparalleled regardless of their actual standing or merit. Why should brands coming through for the first time care about this? This is necessary research to delve into, because it speaks to where your brand’s next great partnership lies.

Partnering with a local hero (whether it be a brand or an individual) is the perfect way to get into the hearts of locals and your business on the minds of the right consumers. When Google opened its wildly popular donut shop in October they partnered with super local donut makers, Jelly Modern Doughnuts rather than rolling in with Krispy Kremes. SoulCycle rode into the Six last year, and celebrated their launch with healthy snacks from neighbours like Greenhouse Juice Co. and Planta. Choosing to involve these recognizable and beloved brands of the city you’re launching in will show you’ve done your research and prove that you’re not planning a red, white, and blue takeover.

We have a booming startup and tech economy.

It’s worth noting that Canadians are hugely supportive of entrepreneurs, especially in the tech space. Our policies and job economy reflect this. With an endless list of incubators and accelerators across the nation, as well as an innovation plan implemented by the federal government, our country’s entrepreneurs and innovators are in good hands. We invest billions in research and development, create immigration programs that make it easier for highly skilled foreign workers in tech to come work in Canada, and offer funding and grants to those building small businesses.

The numbers of those working in tech are staggering across the country. In 2016, 15% of all jobs in Toronto were found in tech. Similar trends exist nationwide with 100,000 people working in tech in British Columbia, and the rush to set up artificial intelligence labs in Montreal is speeding up. This is important for brands to know because it reflects the way Canadians (especially early adopters) think about brands. We’re open-minded, like innovation, and want our cities and products to be smarter. Brands that don’t get this may miss out on that notoriously warm Canadian welcome.

We want the cool brands we hear so much about.

There’s a misconception often held by American brands that we don’t like them, but we definitely do! Whether it’s through social media or cross border shopping trips, Canadians are hyper-aware of all the amazing brands in the states. Not only are we aware of them, but we want them. We like to think of ourselves as in-the-know tastemakers, so when a cool brand decides to set up shop in Canada, we’re flattered. We get that Target’s complete failure in the Canadian market may make big American brands wary of their own Canadian success, but Target’s failure was not for our lack of love! We were obsessed! Unfortunately, there were issues around lack of inventory and logistics with Canadian stores that fell short of success, but they are certainly missed.

American brands who set up creative pop-up experiences make the news and have consumers flocking to them. Brands like Warby Parker, Nordstrom, and SoulCycle were so successful after their initial Canadian launches in Toronto, that they went on to second locations in the city within their first year or so. The key is doing your research and providing the full experience. Canadians will know immediately if they’re getting a watered down version of the brand experience in America. We know what’s out there and we want in on it.

The bottom line? As is the case in any market, research is crucial. Still want to launch your brand in Canada? Get to know the local brands, research past successful launches in Canadian cities, and survey our news to get a grasp of what we care about. Add a box of sour cream Timbits to sweeten the deal and you’re basically a shoo-in!