Mourning the Loss of a Canadian Holiday Tradition

I was never much of a coffee drinker.  Sure, I’d order a coffee with dessert in a restaurant from time to time, but for many years my morning, afternoon and evening ritual was diet Coke.  During university I’d buy it at Valdi’s discount grocery store, in huge, flat trays of 24 cans that slipped easily under my bed for safekeeping.  But in my thirties when I became pregnant for the first time, I kicked my diet Coke habit.  I’d heard that artificial sweetener was a no-no for expectant Moms and so, along with alcohol, soft cheeses and shellfish, I gave it up cold turkey.  The dull headache of withdrawal lasted a good couple of weeks but after that I felt better than ever, and so once Taylor was born, diet Coke found its proper place in my life as a ‘sometimes’ beverage.

The car became my best friend during those initial months as a first time Mom.  It was my ticket out of the dusty, new home wasteland where we lived, to greener pastures where I could be distracted from the all consuming worry of new parenthood.  Plus, the car provided a delightful side benefit in its ability to lull Taylor into a deep sleep.

It was during this time that I began to glide through the Tim Hortons drive thru on a regular basis.  I’d order a sugary sweet, double double and then drive to a park by the lake to take in the view, while Taylor snoozed away in her car seat and I enjoyed my coffee.  It was December, and the Tim Hortons holiday cup design was in circulation.  Maybe it was my still-unsettled hormones but I can remember looking fondly at the holiday images on the cup, and then in the rear view mirror at the fuzzy hat of my sleeping baby, and feeling choked up with the realization that Craig and I were now on our way to becoming one of those happy families on the cup, frolicking in the snow.

The following year when the holiday cups hit the market, all those warm feelings came flooding back.  By then Taylor was one, and was captivated by the many decorations that appeared with the season.  A sparkly tree in our hum-drum basement, elves with bells on their shoes at our local mall, and coffee cups with a pictures on them.

As the years went on, the Tim Hortons holiday cups became a clear sign that Christmas was coming.  Never mind the holiday items at Costco that appeared in October… the Tim’s cups signalled that Christmas was close!  They coincided with Santa appearing at the mall, our annual family photo session at Sears Portrait Studio and strings of colourful lights beginning to adorn the houses in our neighbourhood.  We called them ‘happy cups.’

We were disappointed the year Tim Hortons went for a low budget brown on brown design for the holidays; we called them ‘not so happy cups.’  But the year following we were delighted to see a return to full colour.

So for a couple of weeks now, I’ve been waiting with anticipation for the appearance of the holiday cups but day after day, I’ve been disappointed.  Santa has been at the mall for weeks, the holiday photo session is done and our outdoor lights have been long lit, but still no happy cup.

Online, the absence of the holiday cups is generating lively conversation everywhere from, to Barrie’s hit music station B101, and even the chat room on   Theories abound, including one that takes the disappearance of the cups as a signal that corporations are coming to realize that the holidays are politically incorrect.

Falling into the camp of ‘Diane has too much time on her hands,’ I resorted to calling the Tim Hortons head office last week to inquire about the cups.  After a lengthy process of making choices using my touchpad, I finally reached a friendly customer service representative named Chantal.

“Thank you for calling Tim Hortons, how can I help you?”

“Yes, I’m calling because I haven’t seen the holiday cups yet this year and I’m starting to get worried that they’re not coming.”

“Do you mean the china mugs?”

“No I mean the paper coffee cups.”

“Unfortunately this year our Latte promotion ran too close to the holiday season and so we were unable to run the holiday cups, but our china mugs are available for purchase.”

Gasp!  They’re not coming????  I could practically hear the Grinch cackling with delight in his icy, mountain cave.

Chantal couldn’t have been more sympathetic to the irrational trauma that this news caused me.  Her down to earth, warm and understanding approach was everything that I would have expected from my favourite Canadian corporate icon.  But there was no hiding from the fact that Tim Hortons chose commerce over tradition this year.  Someone in that sensible brick office building on Sinclair Road in Oakville, decided that it was more important to try to sell lattes this year than to reinforce the warm, family-first, community focused character of their brand.

It worries me that Tim Hortons may think their best defense against customers leaking over to Starbucks and the like, is to offer fancy drinks like lattes.  I love Tim Hortons because it isn’t fancy.  Like me… who is also, not fancy.  The Tim’s brand mirrors my values, with a focus on family, friends and community.    It’s a deep emotional connection that is nirvana for marketers.

I asked Chantal if she knew how long the holiday cups had been running at Tim Hortons.  She said she didn’t but that she would get back to me.  A few days ago she called to tell me that she didn’t have an answer but was working on it, and wanted me to know that she hadn’t forgotten about me.  Chantal gets it.


4 thoughts on “Mourning the Loss of a Canadian Holiday Tradition

  1. Thanks for the update on Tim Horton’s marketing, Diane. I guess I am oblivious to a lot of this kind of thing. I hadn’t noticed either the absence of the holiday cups or the presence of the lattes! I must be a marketing executives worst nightmare. I assume the changes you are noticing are driven by expenses, profit, and competition. McDonald’s has entered this market, too. How do I know? They sent out coupons for free McCafe specialty beverages! Now, that gets my attention. I am more likely to try something new if it is free.


  2. You never fail to bring me a smile! We consumers will forgive brands a lot – as long as they don’t mess with what we hold sacred in our relationship with our treasured brands. Like our jingles, cups and hamburg corners!

  3. Thanks Kate! I’m glad to see the marketing community starting to jump on this one. I’ll be watching Marketing Magazine to see if it even gets a mention. In your piece you referred to the consistency of the Tim’s marketing platform, and I instantly thought: “yes!” I may not EVER be interested in buying a Tim Horton’s BELT breakfast sandwich but I can at least make sense of it… it ‘fits’ with the Tim’s brand character.

    You’re right that it’s a slippery slope they’re treading.

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