Authenticity trumps cheap

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By Alexandra Reid

Sometimes, a dash of painful irony is enough to provoke a serious discussion.

I flew to Vancouver this past week to reunite with my Dad and two brothers who have all moved to opposite areas of the planet over the last few years. My younger brother, Austin, who flew in from China, promised his Chinese girlfriend a Starbucks mug with “Canada” on it when he returned. We all went to Starbucks with Austin to purchase the mug, but when he checked its bottom for the price, we couldn’t help but stare at it, utterly flabbergasted.

The cringer: The mug cost $12.99.

The kicker: The stamp next to the price said that the mug was “Made in China.”

A brief moment of silence transpired as our brains processed the ludicrousness of what we were witnessing. Then the giggles began erupting. Austin smacked his forehead at the irony. “I can’t seriously take this mug back to China for my girlfriend,” he said. “She would laugh in my face.”

In all seriousness, however, this situation highlights a critical issue in Canadian branding.

The rising Canadian dollar and the flood of cheap foreign imports, especially from China, have hit Canada’s manufacturing industry hard. This has led businesses involved in Canadian tourism to outsource the manufacturing of their souvenirs to developing countries. These businesses may claim that their souvenirs are “eco-friendly,” but they really represent lost opportunities for Canadian manufacturers and vendors and may well involve poor working conditions for employees in developing countries. With a “made in developing country” stamp on our  souvenirs to boot, our Canadian brand is left tarnished as our authenticity is sacrificed for cheap merchandise that pigeon-hole our identity to moose, Maple leafs and Mounties.

These trinkets are crafted for tourists visiting Canada and they do sell, though their connection to modern-day Canada is slight. Remember in 1995 when the RCMP signed a contract with Disney that gave the company full reign over how the image of the Mountie would be portrayed and packaged? The contract has long since expired and the trademark has been reclaimed by the RCMP, but the image of that silly stuffed moose in a Mountie hat has lived on.

Canadian souvenirs are also sold in huge quantities by vendors that are not even Canadian. Remember when the Hudson’s Bay Company was sold to the American company NRDC Equity Partners? Don’t forget that Canada’s Olympic uniforms, including the iconic “torch bearer” mittens with the white Maple Leaf and Olympic rings, developed by the HBC, were 90 percent made in China. Even “Authentic First Nations” souvenirs were made in developing countries, including native art and traditional clothing, causing a massive uproar from Native Canadians.

Leading up to the Vancouver Olympics, Chris Rudge, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee, said, “The reality is that there is no longer manufacturing capacity in Canada that can meet the volume needs that are necessary to manufacture particularly the replica clothing that is sold to the public,” adding the government likely believed it was impractical to insist on 100 percent Canadian-made uniforms.

How did this happen? I’m no economist, but I do know that we vote with our wallets.

As the Canadian Tourism Commission and its fearless leader, Michele McKenzie, ramp up Canada’s tourism industry by fervently promoting our brand abroad — particularly in China, which is the world’s fastest-growing major economy and outbound tourist market — our image will be consistently undermined by our unwillingness to stand behind our own culture and economy.

Why does a country need a brand, asks the CTC? “A tourism brand is the imagination and emotion a country inspires in visitors. A set of beliefs and associations they hold about a place. A tourism brand is a promise of what to expect when you visit.”

As a Canadian citizen, I have been programmed to associate Canada with maple syrup, Mounties, moose and hockey. But I certainly don’t feel all warm and fuzzy inside when I see these degrading trinkets that weren’t even made by my fellow Canadians being sold for $2 by American vendors. If I feel cheapened by my own tourist economy, who else could uphold it as something of value?

It is a sad predicament in which we find ourselves, but there is still hope for change. It requires a shift in our mentality. When it comes to branding, it is not the product that inspires people, it is the story behind it. Be authentic and support your cause on every front. By doing so, you can create lasting impressions that resonate with people, which is infinitely more valuable than a silly trinket.

What are you doing to promote the authenticity of your brand? Have you heard of Canadian businesses successfully selling Canadian-made souvenirs? What’s their strategy? Is it just wishful thinking that Canada will one day support its local economy?

Photo from  O’Canada Gear


  • Imie

    February 15, 2011 10:58 am

    A sad irony indeed!

    But what should be done? Our country need a PR committee and I am willing to pay for it with my tax dollars. :)


  • Isabelle

    February 21, 2011 1:04 pm

    Great post and great reflexion on the (sad) current state of affairs in this country. It’s every Canadian’s duty to stand up and say “that’s enough”. We always vote with our wallets but too often without our brains. But I’m happy to report that change is coming through awareness, information, and yes some good old PR! Check out our website for great made in Canada products. Our mission is to promote the Canadian brand at home, where it all begins.

  • Alexandra Reid

    February 22, 2011 10:38 am

    Isabelle, I came across your site during my research. Good for you for promoting the Canadian brand by supporting our industries and culture. Through smart shopping and information sharing to boost awareness, I think we can make a profound change. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

    Imie, Canada does have a PR society that represents Government as well as private, non-profit and charity sectors, called the Canadian Public Relations Society. However, the CTC is the real international promotor of Canada’s brand. I appreciate that the CTC is promoting Canada as a competitive destination, however, our national brand will always fall short where we cannot support it. What would you look for in a National PR Committee?

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