Tim Hortons Inc. is facing a quintessentially Canadian public relations nightmare after finding itself in middle of the ongoing battle between pro- and anti-oil-industry factions.
The coffee chain announced Thursday that it would stop running ads by Enbridge Inc. – promoter of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline through British Columbia – after a social media campaign by a U.S. environmental group from its Vancouver office gathered 28,000 names on an online petition, and sparked Twitter and Facebook posts decrying the commercial. The ads had been airing for nearly three weeks on screens in 1,500 Tim Hortons locations across Canada.
In a response that went out to those complaining on Twitter, Tim Horton's tweeted this early Thursday: "We value your feedback + @Enbridge advertisements are no longer airing on Tims TV."
But industry supporters are fighting back, led by Conservative MP Michelle Rempel, who represents Calgary Centre-North and is junior minister for Western Economic Diversification.
"@TimHortons just sent a msg to the thousands of Cdns employed by Canada's energy sector," she tweeted. Then added: "How many @TimHortons franchises in Alberta? Just wondering." In response to another tweet, she appeared to endorse the call for a boycott, although in later interview she backed away from that position.
The Conservatives and oil industry supporters have been waging a public relations war with the environmental groups that oppose expansion of the oil sands and construction of new pipelines.
Tim Hortons has long been celebrated by the Conservatives as one of Canada's iconic brands, and the party is often seen as aiming its appeal at the small-town and suburban, middle-class voters, which is considered the core customer base for Tims.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's affinity for Tim Hortons was never clearer than in September, 2009, when he wrapped up a visit to New York prior to a key speech by U.S. President Barack Obama at the United Nations in order to attend a corporate announcement in Oakville, Ont. The event was to mark the fact Tim Hortons had reconfigured itself into a Canadian company, an event the Conservatives trumpeted as a sign that their policies of low corporate taxes were working.
The company – named for NHL star Tim Horton – was acquired by Brazilian firm, 3G Capital Partners LP, in December and merged with U.S.-based Burger King.
Still, Tims was named the top corporate citizen in Canada by the publication, Corporate Knights, which bills itself as a "magazine for clean capitalism." Enbridge ranks sixth in the magazine's list of top corporate citizens.
Faced with public controversy over the proposed Gateway pipeline, Enbridge has embarked on a major advertising campaign, including spots featured prominently on network television with the slogan: "Life Takes Energy." The ads on Tim Hortons' TV were part of the campaign. Enbridge spokesman Graham White said the Tim Hortons campaign was meant to run for four weeks and was due to end in the coming days.
"We have enjoyed working with Tim Hortons and respect their decision," he said in an e-mail. A spokeswomen for Tim Hortons did not return phone calls or respond to e-mails.
Environmentalists declared victory with the chain's decision. "Tim Hortons is a trusted brand across Canada and Enbridge was trying to leverage that very trust to sell a skeptical Canadian public on the [pipeline] project but the public isn't buying it," said Emma Pullman, a Vancouver-based activist with SumOfUs.
Industry supporters pointed to the fact that SumOfUs is an American group and complained about foreign intervention in a Canadian debate. But Ms. Pullman said the group has more than 800,000 Canadian supporters through social media, and the appeal went out to that network.
Ms. Rempel said she was disappointed that Tim Hortons moved so quickly in response to the SumOfUs petition, which, she said, contained some erroneous or misleading statements about the Canadian oil industry and pipelines. "It's just surprising," she said in an interview. "Tims is ubiquitous across Canada and certainly in Alberta, and it serves people who work in the energy industry. ...
"One has to wonder whether head office talked to their franchise owners in Alberta before making the decision. I imagine those calls are being made this afternoon – certainly there are a lot of people voicing their displeasure."