On a sunny, frigid Thursday morning in Toronto, when Olympians Simon Whitfield and Mark Oldershaw paddled a Hudson's Bay-branded canoe in Lake Ontario, it was more than a bit of marketing Canadiana: It was also the latest launch of a vast range of merchandising around the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
Hudson's Bay Co. is launching a 58-piece collection of souvenirs in all 90 of its stores across the country and online, including Canada-themed keychains, mugs, iPhone cases, beach towels and apparel. The retailer's Canada 150 campaign will focus on raising funds for the Great Trail project, which will connect 24,000 kilometres of trails across the country into one route by the end of this year. Ten per cent of the products' sales will go to the project, and two products – a $20 mini-canoe paddle keepsake and a $5 paddle keychain – will direct 50 per cent of sales to fundraising for the trail's completion and future upkeep.
Hudson's Bay has a keen understanding of how valuable such moments of Canadian pride can be: Its red mittens featuring a white maple leaf became a must-have item during the Vancouver Olympics – with $3.90 of the $15 sale price going to the Olympic team – and have sold more than seven million pairs since.
"Having that iconic item as an anchoring moment within the assortment has been hugely beneficial," Hudson's Bay president Liz Rodbell said. "As the teams were thinking through how to celebrate the 150th … it was a chance to activate in a meaningful way."
When it comes to the sesquicentennial, the Bay is not alone in recognizing the sales opportunity.
The official Canada 150 logo is free to use, even on items for sale, as long as companies apply for a license from the Department of Canadian Heritage. The department said in an e-mail that it has granted "hundreds" of commercial licences.
Kitchen Stuff Plus is selling water bottles with the official logo. Home Hardware is selling commemorative tulips in Canada 150 packaging. New Waterford, N.S.-based online store monkeysandmore.com is offering sock monkeys and moose decorated with the logo. A number of e-commerce websites are offering everything from hats to pens, frisbees, mugs and bumper stickers adorned with commemorative images. The Royal Canadian Mint, naturally, has souvenir coins on offer. And Roots Canada has both a "Canada Collection" of apparel and leather goods marketed around the celebrations, but is also selling a line in partnership with the City of Ottawa, featuring its Ottawa 2017 logo sold in stores there to mark celebrations in the capital.
"Canada's in a renaissance," Roots co-founder Michael Budman said. "The culture, our great prime minister, our diversity – all these things are adding up to make Canada one of the most desirable places in the world. Canadians are proud of where they're from."
Of course, all the tchotchkes, tote bags and T-shirts won't be an easy sell with everyone. Many people – in native communities in particular, but also beyond – who are keenly aware that the inhabited land we now call Canada is far older than 150 years, could see the celebrations as more complicated.
There will be an appetite for celebratory souvenirs, however. While the narrative about Canadian identity has often focused on the country's unassuming, humble characteristics – whether accurately or not – there are signs that narrative may be shifting. In a study conducted last year by ad firm Havas, which surveyed nearly 12,000 adults in 37 countries, three-quarters of Canadians agreed that they are proud of their country; only slightly less than 77 per cent of people in the United States who said the same. And in recent years, brands including Tim Hortons, Molson Canadian and Air Canada have shifted the tone of their advertising to tap into a more unabashed sense of patriotism among consumers.
"We've often been apologetic, and I think we've grown out of that. … We've been slowly transforming as a nation where we can stop trying to prove ourselves and be proud of what's happening here," said Tom Koukodimos, partner and executive creative director at ad agency Sid Lee in Toronto. The agency is currently working on designing a line of Canada 150-themed T-shirts, and possibly other products, for the Drake General Store. The line will launch in late spring. Sid Lee will choose a group of Canadians who have influenced the culture in some way, and will base each design on what being Canadian means to them. "We can all imagine what a lot of the 150 merchandising might look like. We're trying to do something more authentic, and fashionable."
Roots is also mounting a challenge for authenticity: While the company's leather goods are still made in Canada, the majority of its clothing is not. But the company says that all the manufacturing for the "Canada collection" for the 150th will be done in Canada. (Hudson's Bay says its collection was designed in Canada, but manufactured overseas.)
"You've got to have really great products" to appeal to shoppers around the sesquicentennial, Mr. Budman said. "Because it's a very competitive marketplace."