Selling through the screen: Coffee and product placement

By Natalie Dunleavy Campbell With an average tel undefined

evision consumption of around five hours a day, when they’re not working or sleeping, the average American will spend much of his or her time glued to the TV screen.

These are figures that Canadian coffee giant Tim Hortons is taking on board in its efforts to further expand into the United States market. In looking to win over the hearts and minds of Americans, Tim Hortons hopes to expand its US presence by placing its product in the hands of the likes of actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert De Niro in Hollywood movies and television. The tactic is part of the coffee chain’s latest marketing strategy to use product placement to increase its brand recognition in the US.

“As we expand our brand and presence in the US and internationally, we’re looking to raise our brand awareness,” says Alexandra Cygal, Senior Manager of Public Affairs at Tim Hortons. “We recognise that putting our product on the big screen is a good way to achieve that.”

These placements might include Gyllenhaal enjoying a “double-double” on the upcoming film Prisoners, De Niro eating “Timbits” in Grudge Match, and Vin Diesel going on a “Timmy’s Run” in Fast and the Furious 6. While the company can’t guarantee these placements will make the final cut, these products have all made the run-sheet of these Hollywood productions. Tim Hortons also landed a second appearance in the American award-winning television series Homeland.

If the upcoming placement opportunities are anywhere near as successful as the brand’s recent appearance on the hit American sitcom How I Met Your Mother  (HIMYM), Tim Hortons might well have struck product placement gold. A season eight episode, aired on 5 February this year, featured a scene located in a Canadian coffee shop clearly branded as Tim Hortons.

While the brand was heavily featured in the episode, the agent of its social media success came from a company tweet touting the new donut it created in honour of the 90210 star and Canadian Jason Priestley, who was also appearing in the episode.

Jason Priestly Tim Hortons tweetThe tweet read: “@Jason_Priestley, we loved the idea of ‘The Priestley’ so much, we made a batch. A Timbit IN a donut? Genius.”

The tweet was in reference to a scene in which several Canadian celebrities, including Priestley, reminisced which Tim Hortons they were in and what donut they were eating when the show’s Canadian teen superstar character “lost it”.

The reaction on social media was instant and impressive. The tweet was shared more than 1500 times on Twitter, while the accompanying post on Facebook garnered more than 12,000 likes and 3500 shares.

According to Cygal, it is this kind of success Tim Hortons is hoping to further generate with product placement efforts this year.
She says it was Tim Hortons’ first product appearance on the television show HIMYM in season five that prompted the idea of using product placement as a key tactic to expand the brand in the US.

Producers of HIMYM – who have a Canadian as one of their lead writers – approached Tim Hortons about a scene in which they wanted to create a Canadian coffee shop setting for two of the show’s main characters played by Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders (who is also Canadian).

“We had so much brand placement in that one episode,” says Cygal. “That really opened our eyes to the possibilities of what product placement can do for our brand.”

Cygal says the social media reaction was instant.

“That’s when we stepped up that game last year,” she says. “There was definitely a bigger push to put our name and brand in more movies.”

Tim Hortons is not the only coffee company seeing the potential of product placement.

While product placement has long been legal and widespread in North America, it is just starting to gain acceptance in Europe. Coffee companies such as Nescafe and Kenco have already jumped on board to take advantage of the situation.

When Ireland legalised paid product placement in May 2011, Kenco was among the first on the bandwagon. TV3 producers cut a deal worth more than US$350,000 to have the show’s presenters drink Kenco instant coffee from branded mugs.

When British telecommunications regulator Ofcom made product placement legal in February 2011, a Nescafe coffee capsule machine was the first legal placement on British television. Nescafe paid US$160,000 to have the machine on air during a morning show, where it was featured in the kitchen with chef Phil Vickery.

Unlike North America, though, it would seem that brands in the UK have been slow to see the potential benefits of product placement. Gary Knight, commercial content director at ITV, which featured the Nescafe placement, told Marketing Week in February 2012 that UK product placement is currently in its “pre-toddler” years.

With fewer than 20 brands featured on the network in the first year since product placement was legalised, Knight told Marketing Week he believed advertisers were reluctant due to a lack of evidence on the return on investment.

Original Tim HortonsCanadian grown Company

If advertisers wanted proof of a return on investment, they could certainly use Tim Hortons as a case study.

To Canadians, it’s probably no surprise that appearances HIMYM and Homeland, both of which are available on national television networks in Canada, would resonate so well with viewers.

The company that was started in 1964 by Ron Joyce and former National Hockey League and Maple Leaf player Tim Horton is well-ingrained in the hearts and minds of Canadians.

“Hortons was absolutely unique in what they did,” Ron Buist, former director of marketing at Tim Hortons of 24 years, tells Global Coffee Review.

He explains the company is impregnated in the Canadian psyche because it was one of the first shops of its kind to offer fresh coffee and donuts 24 hours a day. The shop had a built-in audience from the get-go, appealing to many different population segments of day and night workers.

“The only place you could go to in the middle of the night was Tim Hortons,” he says.

Buist says the key to the company’s early growth and success was largely due to starting locations in smaller communities and cities. Marketing efforts focussed on grassroots campaigns and involvement in the communities they worked and served.

Its Timbits Minor Sports Program, for example, currently sponsors more than 200,000 kids aged four to eight who play on sports teams in hockey, soccer, lacrosse, t-ball, baseball and ringette in communities across Canada and the US. 

Buist says that as the company grew, it moved into larger communities. “They started with one store with no marketing plan,” he says. “They worked hard at it and they did a job that no one else really wanted to do.”

Buist, who is author of the Canadian best-seller Tales from Under the Rim, now tours as a public speaker. He is credited with some of Tim Hortons’ most successful marketing campaigns still relevant to present-day consumers.

He initiated the company’s ‘True Stories’ campaign in the 1980s that used testimonials as a base for advertising. He is also the marketing brain behind the annual Roll Up the Rim contest that gives consumers a shot at winning grand prizes, including cars. 

While large-scale product placements are a big strategy shift for the company, Buist says that Tim Hortons would probably do well in continuing its grassroots approach to marketing in its locations south of the border.

Tim Hortons United StatesVenture south

The spread of Tim Hortons’ locations across Canada is clear evidence of the brand’s role as a well-established national icon. With more than 3300 locations, it is the largest fast-food chain in Canada. It’s also the fourth largest in North America, based on market capitalisation.

To put things into perspective, its number of locations per capita is double that of McDonald’s in the US.

But while Tim Hortons made it big at home, can it dream of achieving that kind of success south of the border?

Cygal says Tim Hortons currently has more than 750 locations in the US, and is significantly increasing its marketing efforts to expand its presence south of the border and internationally.

“It makes sense to expand our brand in terms of awareness beyond Canada,” says Cygal.

According to Alan Middleton, PhD and Assistant Professor of Marketing at York University in Toronto, the challenge will be competing in a market already saturated with well-established coffee brands like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Dunkin’ Donuts has a similar value proposition to Tim Hortons, offering fresh coffee and donuts 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Its tagline, “America runs on Dunkin’,” is comparably as catchy as its Canadian competitor’s “It’s time for Tims.”

Middleton says, however, that product placement could be an effective strategy into a saturated market.

“They have to become a more accepted part of the scenery and contextualise something people haven’t seen before,” he says.
He explains that the value in using product placement is having people see something they haven’t been aware of in the past, or reinforcing the dominance in ubiquity of what they are.

He highlights Coca Cola as a product that often uses this strategy. For example, a Coke logo, featured in the opening scene of 1982’s futuristic flick Blade Runner, was intended to signify the company being around in the future.

Middleton says the reason product placement is so coveted in Hollywood movies is the aspirational lifestyle it promotes.

“It’s not only the people using it,” he says. “It’s the context in which they’ve seen it which helps establish the brand.” He says the type of movie, style, and scene in which a product is identified helps make it identifiable and reflects the lifestyle a company wants its brand associated with.

Cygal says Tim Hortons is working hard to introduce the company’s story to studio executives in the US and participate in film festivals, in the hopes of getting authentic brand product placement opportunities.

“I think the studios are really interested in trying to build authentic settings,” she says. “If someone is walking with a cup of coffee down the street it makes the production that much more real.”

Middleton cautions that product placement also carries its risks. He says filmmakers could make the film look like a two-hour commercial, or make the product so subtle it is completely missed because of the nature of the scene.

There are numerous cases of product placement gone wrong. In November 2012, American beer company Budweiser asked producers of the movie Flight to remove an unauthorised use of their brand from scenes that have Denzel Washington drinking the beer behind the wheel.

In 1996, Reebok famously sued TriStar Pictures over the misuse of its brand in the American film Jerry Maguire. The company took issue when it paid US$1.5 million to have their brand in the movie, which had Cuba Gooding Jr.’s football-playing character angry at the brand throughout the movie for not sponsoring him.

Homeland Tim HortonsAccording to Middleton, what determines if the cost of product placement is worth the benefit depends on how many eyeballs are expected to view it. He says if Tim Hortons only had to supply product, it would be a lot cheaper than BMW’s placement in the James Bond movie series.

Cygal says that most productions only require the supply of products and brand collateral for placement, such as those on How I Met Your Mother.

Middleton suspects Tim Hortons will keep playing the social media card in combination with the upcoming placements to make the campaign a success.

And then there is the type of advertising you can’t pay for.

In January 2013, a loyal Tim Hortons customer posted a video of a group of elderly gentleman singing a barbershop version of Can You Feel the Love Tonight, by Elton John, in one of its locations. The video was an instant hit with nearly a million views on YouTube within a month.

“It’s entirely consistent in continuation of product buzz,” says Middleton. “It’s that kind of thing they (Tim Hortons) are trying to get started in the US.” 

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