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Canadian Tire delivery car circa 1949

What's more Canadian than a toboggan, hockey equipment, and the deep, dulcet voice of Christopher Plummer? All of these things in one commercial, of course.

Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. is laying the maple syrup on thick starting next week, as it launches a new campaign that marks both its 90th anniversary and the six-month countdown to the launch of Target stores in Canada.

As Canadian Tire prepares to square off against the United States retail giant, the new ads will strike a nostalgic chord – tracking its heritage from the 1922 opening of the first garage-and-tire store in Toronto until today – and will also unveil a brand new tagline: "Canada's store."

Next week's launch is the beginning of a marketing push that is meant to strengthen Canadians' affinity for the brand and to build awareness as it faces a new competitive landscape. Emphasizing the strength of its homegrown identity is the strategy Canadian Tire believes will achieve that.

"It's really about reinforcing with Canadians that we've got a long history, and we've worked really hard to create the right assortment that enables us to lay claim to being Canada's store," said Allan McDonald, senior vice-president of marketing and automotive for Canadian Tire.

"And it's our inspiration for ensuring that we'll continue to be that for many years to come."

The retailer is shifting its advertising spending; for one thing, it will spend less money on small, grassroots events and more on mainstream media for greater impact. And part of that spend will be dedicated to retaining the female consumers the company has courted with some success in recent years – and the ones most likely to be wooed by Target. Canadian Tire's spending on ads in glossy magazines will rise considerably, and it will cultivate a stronger social media presence (women are disproportionately active users of Facebook and Pinterest).

The retailer will also change the mix of its ad messages. Whereas in the past it focused more heavily on product-centric ads, these will now run alongside a more even balance of broader spots focusing on the overall brand (beginning with the one launching Tuesday).

Canadian Tire hired Mr. Plummer to narrate the life events that the stores have facilitated: Canadiana such as exploring the woods (camping gear), conquering "mountains" (toboggans) and dreaming of athletic glory (hockey equipment).

"You may not know what you'll need tomorrow," Mr. Plummer says. "But you'll know where to get it."

The campaign will run through December, and includes 13 to 15 other TV ads pushing the Canadian tagline to product-specific spots. On Friday it will begin advertising with the line "Canada's hockey store." Others include "Canada's automotive store," and a special point of competition with Target: "Canada's kitchen store."

Canadian Tire's recent campaign slogan, "Bring it on," launched in 2011 not long after the Target announcement was made. In advertising, the phrase was used to address Canadians' attitudes about the country's varied seasons. At corporate headquarters, it was also something of a rallying cry.

Canadian Tire has survived past incursions by U.S. retailers such as Home Depot Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.. The entry of Wal-Mart particularly caused the company to rethink the layout of its stores, change pricing policies and in more recent years, appeal to female shoppers more directly. It's efforts such as this, not Canadian roots, that proved most effective.

"Canadians are very pragmatic. They're not going to buy Canadian – it's very different than the U.S. where you can have more of that patriotic play – Canadians are willing to be supportive if the product or the brand warrants the support, all other things being equal," said Jeanette Hanna, co-founder of Toronto branding firm Trajectory, and co-author of Ikonika: A Field Guide to Canada's Brandscape.

The strategy has been used in reverse, as well. Around its launch in 1994 ,Wal-Mart struggled to fend off its image of an invading discount behemoth with a series of full-page newspaper ads promoting itself, in somewhat backward logic, as a Canadian company.

"Why has Wal-Mart Canada made a public pledge to buy Canadian-source merchandise whenever we can? Because we are a Canadian company, managed and staffed by Canadians, and with an important stake in the prosperity of this country … today and into the future," one ad read.

Meanwhile, Zellers Inc. pushed its Canadian image aggressively at the time, including a waving flag in the background of its TV ads and emphasizing its heritage by noting it had served Canadians since 1931.

"Zellers really did promote that they were Canadian-owned, but that didn't really resonate with people who wanted to save 15 cents on a roll of toilet paper. It didn't work," said Leonard Kubas, founder of Toronto-based retail consultancy Kubasprimedia. "We ended up losing a large number of Canadian retailers – big ones, such as Eaton's, that many of us grew up with. Canadian retailers that survived did so because they were well-run and well-marketed."

The latest casualty is Zellers: Many of its old stores are now being converted to house the latest U.S. entrant, Target.

Canadian Tire's Mr. McDonald said the new ads are about more than Canadiana.

"Our buyers understand life in Canada. Our 470 dealers live in Canadian communities, and they spend their time assorting their stores just perfectly for the needs of that community," he said. "Resonating with Canadians is something you do if you understand them well."

New guy on the box 

He's affable, just slightly goofy and he definitely does not have a beard. Canadian Tire is testing out a new spokesperson, who will begin appearing in ads on Friday.

Canadian Tire has not always had luck in this area: in 2006, it pulled its bearded spokesperson who annoyed Canadians with his know-it-all demeanour, unnervingly tidy garage and a tool shed filled with ultra-specific gadgets. After eight years on air, he was was simply known as "the Canadian Tire guy."

The new spokesperson is a little less "high-falutin," said Nancy Beattie, general manager of the company's ad agency, Taxi Toronto.

He's slightly tongue-in-cheek, showing up improbably in the middle of a family breakfast to praise their kitchen appliances, for example, and demonstrating how filthy car air filters need replacing – before apologizing to the family for breaking into their car. The company will evaluate whether to keep the new character after three months.

Aside from celebrity partnerships (such as with Cesar Millan or Jonathan Toews) or seasonal characters like Scrooge, it's the first time Canadian Tire has tried out a new spokesperson since the improbably handy bearded fellow was pulled from the air.

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