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Gourmet brew? New Tim Hortons campaign tells story behind the coffee

An image from Tim Horton's new national ad campaign.


To the high-falutin' strains of cello music, a man in a lab coat runs his hands over rich, brown coffee grounds. Through the grounds an animated story appears: coffee beans growing on a leafy vine, being roasted and examined by a coffee master.

It's a gourmet-style picture, with a twist: the coffee featured here is from Tim Hortons Inc.

For many, it is not the image they associate with their cheap, quick-serve morning fix. But the national ad campaign launching this week is designed to tell the story of Timmie's coffee quality.

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It's a story that the chain needs to tell. While Tim Hortons' own consumer research suggests that it scores well compared to other quick-service restaurants in measures such as "best tasting coffee," other chains have been putting up a fight. McDonald's Corp. for example, has been putting great marketing heft behind the quality of its coffee in recent years. Tim Hortons's new chief executive officer Marc Caira acknowledged that competitive environment in an interview last month.

And while the company still sells more than seven out of every 10 cups of coffee purchased in quick-service restaurants today, the competition has started to show: McDonald's now has a 10.7 per cent share of quick-service brewed coffee sales in Canada, up from 5.4 per cent in 2009, according to research firm the NPD Group for the year ended in May. Tim Hortons, still dominant, is down slightly.

"What this allows us to do is shine a light on a process that makes us different from competitors," said Dave McKay, vice-president of beverages at Tim Hortons. "We own our own roasting facility and we have our own coffee masters that operate here out of our offices. It really gives us a chance to highlight that we are coffee experts."

The company's ad agency, JWT Canada, did not itself know that the coffee masters existed before doing this campaign. Working with production and animation agency Common Good, it produced the commercial over a 14-day period. The story that emerges in pictures inside the coffee grounds is not just a digital effect: they used stop-motion animation, moving the grounds around carefully – sometimes using feathers. The team aimed to use as little post-production effects work as possible.

"As much as it seems chichi, and out there, this was just a vehicle to bring to life a story that our guests said they're interested in knowing," said Glenn Hollis, vice president of brand strategy at Tim Hortons.

The 60-second spot will run on television in French and English Canada, with airtime purchased in many different types of programming to target a large consumer audience. It will also have a large online and social media component, with a making-of video displayed to the roughly 25,000 daily visitors to the Tim Hortons website as well as to its 2.2 million Facebook fans. People will be invited to create a picture of themselves in coffee grounds that they can use as profile pictures on social media sites as well.

Tim Hortons annual marketing plan often focuses on coffee in the fall, since there is a seasonal shift away from cold drinks and people return to a daily routine as summer vacations end.

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This ad message comes at a time when consumer tastes are evolving. While formidable companies such as Starbucks Corp. have taught people to order coffee in Italian and lattes are no longer a specialty item, there is a segment of the population that has gone a step further. The merits of conical burr grinders, french presses and cold brew are widely discussed. In an environment where people are simply becoming more precious about coffee, it may be a challenge for humble Tim Hortons to tell a high-quality story.

"They're interested in the story behind the coffee," Mr. Hollis said. "That's how we glommed on to this insight, around 'Oh, I didn't realize there's so much behind the coffee' – the care, the consistency, this marriage of art and science."

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