Tim Hortons Crowd-Sourced Narratives

I recently saw a “based on a true story” ad for Tim Hortons that aired during a Blue Jays game. That led me to the Tim Hortons website, where the company is now running a competition (with a grand prize of $ 5000 in Tim Cards) for stories about “special Tim Hortons coffee moments.” The slogan of this initiative is “every cup tells a story,” and it appears that the best stories will be translated into ads.

I’m not sure how many ads have yet been based on these submissions, so I’ll confine my comments to the one that I did see. This story involves a relationship between a young adult daughter and her parents, particularly her father. The young woman has moved to a small apartment – she sleeps in the living room – in the downtown of a big city and, to indicate that this is a lifestyle change, gotten a nose stud.

Her parents have come to visit her. Her father is trying to persuade her to come home – presumably somewhere in small-town Canada – where it is less expensive and quieter. She tells dad that “this [the big city] is home.” Daughter and parents see a Tims and sit down for a coffee and a heart-to-heart talk. While her father still looks distressed at her life choices, the Tims is presented as the place where they can still connect.

The ad portrays very important life-cycle issues. The young woman is asserting her own identity. While the ad doesn’t tell us what work she is doing, it does tell us that it will be in a big city, not a small town, and will involve an edgier and more avant-garde life style than found in a small town. It sounds like she has joined Richard Florida’s “creative class.”

Her father is acting out of sincere concern for his daughter – an aspect of Erik Erikson’s generativity – but his concern is tinged with self-interest, in that he still wants her close by. The difficult realization he’s reaching is that his idea of how she should live her life must give way to hers, and that he cannot control her.

It’s interesting that the company ran the ad during a baseball game, where the audience demographic includes – perhaps is dominated by – the middle aged males represented by the dad. I assume it could also be used on programs with the young adult audience represented by the daughter (perhaps the CBC’s “Being Erica.”)

But where does the link to Tims fit in? It’s indirect, since the ad is not about the coffee or the menu, but rather about the human interactions that customers have at Tims. If the ad’s target market is – even more specifically – middle aged males in small towns, then it is reinforcing the message that Tims is the coffee shop of choice, but there are also many Tims, even in gritty noisy big city downtowns.

The question that comes to my mind – as a middle-aged guy who has spent his entire life in big cities – is where I would go for if I were looking for neutral ground on which to have a heart-to-heart chat with either a family member or a colleague. Tims would not be my first choice. I’d be looking for a place with a quiet corner that has the feel of a living room, and where we could linger without any pressure to free up the table for another customer. To their credit, the Tims I pass by are very successful and always seem crowded, with long lines of people waiting to order. I’d be much more likely to choose a Starbucks or Second Cup that isn’t too busy, and has quiet corners where people linger.

I’ll be interested in seeing the next commercials to emerge out of Tims initiative in narrative crowd-sourcing. I’m an advocate of story-telling as a means of communicating one’s message. But I’m not convinced that indirect stories about interactions between people having coffee (or food) at Tims are winning customers for Tims, or strengthening its market position relative to that of its competitors.

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