If "Canadian" is a brand, this has been a terrible time for this country's international market share. Here are three headlines from this week alone, courtesy of Fox News, the Guardian and The Telegraph, respectively:
- Why Did The Obama Admin Use A Failed Canadian Company to Create the ObamaCare Website?
- Canadian Company Fined £1.6m For Lesotho Bribes
- How Did BlackBerry Get Away With Being Rubbish For So Long?
And that's just the beginning. In Brazil, the word "Canadian" is now mainly associated with the use of a national spy agency to gain competitive advantage over mining companies (as a result, Canadian firms may end up banished from this huge market). Joe Fresh is associated with collapsing factories in Bangladesh (for which its parent company, Loblaw Cos. Ltd., has just announced it will pay compensation). Our once-beloved Lululemon yoga pants are now the butt of worldwide jokes that are hurting the company's market position.
For the private sector, the Maple Leaf has become the avatar of doom.
I've noticed one significant exception, though. Buried among those commerce-crushing headlines was one ray of marketing hope, captured right here in a Globe and Mail headline: Asian Pot Connoisseurs Take A Liking To Canadian Weed.
This most profitable Canadian agricultural export is hugely popular in Vietnam, where smokers pay 10 times the price of the plentiful local product for our potent bud. But the same effect can be seen in the coffee shops of Amsterdam and the pot clinics of California, where the word "Canadian," affixed to any baggie, is the herbal equivalent of a Nike swoosh or a BMW crest. Canada's most successful brand in international markets may well be "B.C. hydro" – not the public electrical utility, but the private, very unregulated British Columbia hydroponic crop, whose annual export value is estimated in the billions and whose reputation and consistency is unparalleled.
If Canada, having just announced the pending completion of a market-opening trade deal with Europe, expects to gain a foothold in the world's largest and most competitive consumer market, its companies need to learn a few things about marketing, innovation, image and quality control.
Perhaps they could learn something from the folks – however unsavoury and felonious they may be – who are turning Quebec chronic and B.C. bud into worldwide sensations. This, after all, was an industry that defied harsh climates and restrictive laws, learned to locate its operations where the largest input cost (electricity) was cheapest, maintained stellar supply-chain networks, distribution channels and quality-control standards while consistently improving product, high-tech manufacturing methods and customer relations. No wonder Canada's political parties are rushing to embrace private-sector pot – it's a rare global Canadian entrepreneurial success story.
Why are other examples so hard to find? Beyond resource-extraction industries, Canadian companies seem to either lag behind, or start out as inventive geniuses who lapse into shopworn rigidity. I know several young technical geniuses who went to work for BlackBerry, the Waterloo smartphone empire, only to have their hopes crushed upon learning that it had become an opaque and inflexible bureaucracy that some have likened to 1970s IBM. This is the fate of too many Canadian companies: They make a bit of money and promptly become stolid and slow-moving.
Canada has just plunged from ninth to 14th place in the annual review of global competitiveness conducted by the World Economic Forum. Our companies lag far behind not only smaller dynamos such as Switzerland and Singapore (the leaders) but even the likes of Finland, Taiwan and Qatar. Competitiveness surveys are rather nebulous things, of course, but this one's results carried some important warnings: Canadians, and their institutions, are unwilling to finance risk and inventiveness. Our companies are unsophisticated. Our educational institutions are good at creating employees to plug into existing hierarchies (which is what MBAs do) but poor at creating great inventors.
A generation or two ago, you could blame it on our mercantile Anglicanism: As a nation built by middle managers and loyal employees, we made terrible entrepreneurs, unless were were selling tractors or wheat. New Canadians don't lack the animal spirits, but they often run aground on stingy, hidebound government agencies and a risk-averse financial sector.
We need to start thinking like a grow-op, and replace the Maple Leaf with a rather different sort of plant.