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opinion

Are we as Canadians, and as a country, just oh so predictable? Is that how we see ourselves, and is that the image we want to sell to the world?

The question is at the heart of a small firestorm that has erupted on social media over an advertising campaign launched by Invest Canada, the federal government agency tasked with attracting foreign investment. “Canada is so predictable” reads the oh-so-catchy tagline to an ad, which goes on to wow would-be investors with our bedazzling “stable macroeconomy” and safe banks (the safest in North America!).

While seemingly designed to put readers to sleep, the ad has stirred up visceral reactions and reignited the age-old debate around what exactly Brand Canada is. Adam Felesky, a well-known tech investor and CEO of Portage Ventures, was “shocked” by the ad while travelling through London’s Heathrow airport, quickly taking to LinkedIn to bemoan the uninspired messaging more suited to the 2008-09 financial crisis.

“This is why we are doomed to ‘predictable’ mediocrity,” wrote Mr. Felesky, whose post sparked a wave of reaction. “Innovation, entrepreneurship, ambition, equal opportunity, multiculturalism, tolerance, respect would be some of the words I’d like us to celebrate.”

Mr. Felesky’s impassioned call to action highlights the growing divide between a new breed of bold, unapologetic entrepreneurs, largely coalesced around the tech sector, who see no limits to their ambition – and, by extension, Canada’s potential – and the careful milquetoast mindset that has long infused, like a heavy coat of grey paint, how we think of ourselves. The question is, which will prevail?

In my 2007 business book, Why Mexicans Don’t Drink Molson: Rescuing Canadian Business from the Suds of Global Obscurity, I wrote about our costly inability to effectively brand and market ourselves – to differentiate and communicate our advantages in a compelling way. The best we could do at the time, could be summarized as “we aren’t American.”

We still rely on that old chestnut – it came in pretty handy during the Trump presidency, and its imprint can be detected in the Invest Canada ads. But the idea of framing ourselves around what we aren’t is not a long-term strategy for success, nor is it particularly inspiring. Sure, there are foreign investors looking for a safe haven in these crazy times, but is that all we’ve got to offer? And more importantly, what is the message that sends to young Canadian entrepreneurs?

The good news is, in the 15 years since my book was published, we have started pushing back on our bland narrative, albeit in fits and starts.

When we think back now, it’s hard to believe the Own the Podium campaign, launched ahead of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, was so controversial. At the time, the goal of winning the most Olympic medals was decried as “un-Canadian.” (Versus being the only host country up to that point not to have won gold on its home turf). It showed us that if we had a clear goal and a strategy to get there, we could win.

More recently, in 2018 Canada became the first Group of Seven country to legalize recreational cannabis. Entrepreneurs across the country stepped up, and for the first time I can recall, an entire homegrown industry was launched with a global mindset and openly boasted about “world domination.”

There was a good dose of naivete, not to mention marketing baloney, in those outsized claims, but the ambition was refreshing and new. There is no question that as we break out of old mindsets and get more comfortable with being confident and assertive, there will be growing pains and learnings.

One of those learnings is that we don’t have to lay claim to world domination or being “world leaders” to demonstrate ambition, achieve great things and create real, durable value. It seems there’s hardly an industry or initiative these days in which we haven’t saddled ourselves with this grandiose vision. I’m not sure what being “world leaders” even means, but I worry that it sets us up for failure – confirming old biases that we can’t compete every time we don’t become the world leaders we proclaimed we should be.

Adam Grant, the organizational psychologist, author and corporate adviser, provides a helpful corollary when he warns against the romantic and maximalist notion of “pursuing one’s passion” when it comes to work. As Mr. Grant points out, it’s an unrealistic goal that makes the vast majority of people feel like they are failing. A better approach, he argues, is to identify what you like and what you are good at, and do it really, really well.

That doesn’t mean we must contain our creativity and ambition, or that we can’t build whole, new dynamic industries, as we have done in tech. And it certainly behooves us to aim higher when it comes to promoting Canada to the world, because, to quote country music icon Chet Atkins, “Once you become predictable, no one’s interested any more.”

Andrea Mandel-Campbell is the author of Why Mexicans Don’t Drink Molson and a board director with the Ontario Centre of Innovation

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