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Canadians 'barbecue when we want to barbecue' says the voiceover in a new Canadian Tire commercial. (Canadian Tire/Canadian Tire)
Canadians 'barbecue when we want to barbecue' says the voiceover in a new Canadian Tire commercial. (Canadian Tire/Canadian Tire)

Canadian Tire waves the flag in new campaign Add to ...

Canadian Tire wants to stop confusing its customers.

Its advertising, with the tag line "For days like today" - touting products ranging from barbecues to bicycles - is being mistaken for ads from retail archrivals Home Depot and Wal-Mart.

Now, as competition is about to heat up with the pending arrival in Canada of U.S. discount giant Target Corp., the iconic chain is fighting back with a new ad campaign and slogan: "Bring it on."

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Struggling to carve out its own identity, Canadian Tire's executive team is betting that a fresh war cry - with a hint of the once-popular "I am Canadian" beer commercial that wryly celebrated being Canadian - will lure more customers to its stores.

The multimillion-dollar marketing blitz, which launches Saturday, highlights the mounting pressure retailers feel in an ever-competitive market to find a marketing formula that gives them an edge.

"It's a huge and awkward challenge," said Anthony Stokan, partner at retail and marketing consultancy Anthony Russell and Associates. "I certainly applaud them for the effort to be altruistic and to be Canadian. … But there's been a bit of a struggle over the decades for Canadian Tire to truly clarify what exactly they are as a retailer."

Canadian Tire needs a lift. Sales at stores open a year or more - an important measure of a retailer's health - nudged up just 0.8 per cent in 2010 and slipped a disappointing 0.4 per cent in the crucial fourth quarter, which includes the busy holiday season.

Now the retailer, which carries a broad offering of automotive, hardware, home and sporting goods, is trying to make a statement - that it's Canadian and it understands Canadians' quirky needs.

Recent research found that its three-year-old marketing campaign has had a good run but is increasingly mistaken for ads from rivals - and vice-versa, said Rob Shields, the new senior vice-president of marketing at Canadian Tire.

"It just started to get lost in the shuffle," Mr. Shields said. "The insights we have [now]into the Canadian consciousness are much different, we think, from any of our competitors - present or future."

His research found that consumers in small communities were particularly attached to Canadian Tire, partly because it's often the only major retailer in those locations. "We are in communities that our competitors will not go into because the economics don't work."

The campaign tries to play on that strength by connecting the retailer to the needs and demands of the small-town consumer, focusing on the changing seasons, he said.

He said the ads are edgier than Canadian Tire's past initiatives. But the chain started to develop the campaign last summer with its ad agency Taxi and isn't reacting to foreign or domestic retailers' expansion plans, he said. (Target said in January that it was buying most Zellers stores and opening for business here by 2013.)

Mr. Stokan said that, on the surface, Canadian Tire's plan sounds brilliant, tugging on Canadians' heartstrings with the national theme. At the same time, the strategy is risky because consumers are still feeling fragile in a volatile economy and are looking for value messages, he said.

Canadian Tire's challenge is to clearly differentiate itself from rivals because "they tend to all blur together," he said.

One of the new Canadian Tire commercials, showing seasonal images such as a boy on a bike, starts with a voiceover: "There's a reason we Canadians are the way we are …

"We like to hold hockey practices at 6 a.m., barbecue when we want to barbecue and load up minivans to drive forever to remote cottages and campsites.

"Who else would rake up a six-foot pile of leaves just so the kids can jump in it? Or shovel a backyard full of snow just so the family can skate in it? "

The message: Canadians love a challenge and Canadian Tire can help them get the chores done. As the ad says: "Bring it on."

Follow on Twitter: @MarinaStrauss

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