Ontario entrepreneur Ian Milmine makes no apologies for injecting as much Canadian flavour into promoting and marketing his barbecue sauces as he does in making, bottling and labelling the grilling condiment that has been in his family for three generations.
Mr. Milmine is the owner of Canadian Grade Eh!, a business that has found value in capitalizing on the long-held view that Canadians are friendly, dependable and polite.
(Canadian Grade Eh!)
These stereotypes do have some basis in reality, according to research that has been done in this area. Mr. Milmine's website, for instance, highlights the line "Sorry for not making this sooner" underneath his company banner. And the names of his sauces – which he tweaked somewhat from his grandfather's original recipe – include "Angry Beaver (medium) Take off eh!" and "Raging Moose (hot) Hold my toque, I got this!"
The self-professed Sauce Boss believes embracing the Canuck identity – in a nice way, of course – is a big reason his revenues this year have already surpassed last year's total, and he now sells as far away as New York and Pennsylvania, as well as to about a dozen retailers in Ontario, and consumers in other parts of Canada.
"It's a big deal that I run my business that way, that no matter what happens, I'm polite to people – it shows we're true to who we are and it helps people grab onto something and relate to it," says Mr. Milmine about his sole proprietorship based in Simcoe, a community in southwestern Ontario's Norfolk County. "The Canadian stereotype is something I could safely play with – every time my American friends talk to me, they instantly go to my stereotype, like joking, 'My moose is out walking the kids.'"
Mr. Milmine's wife Meghan is the manager of an animal hospital and is expecting their second child this September. At 34, he is a full-time steelworker but has set his sights on expanding Canadian Grade Eh! to much more than a sideline business – grateful he has been helped along the way by family and friends, including at the legion hall where he makes and bottles the sauces.
His local focus includes supporting local and domestic businesses, including donating baskets of his sauces for community fundraisers.
Geoffrey Leonardelli, a University of Toronto management professor with expertise in international relations and cultural differences, says the idea Canadians are polite and reliable is consistent with studies he has come across.
His own research highlights another Canadian trait that can have an impact on building a good business relationship abroad: embracement of diversity.
While it is more typical to discuss ways to avoid stereotypes, emphasizing traits that evoke "warm feelings" could be an "opportunistic" way to get across the message "we're not all the same" in the business world. The Canadian image may also evoke the idea that we have a tendency to build positive relationships and carry through with them, says Mr. Leonardelli, an associate professor at the Rotman School of Management, with a cross-appointment in the Department of Psychology.
But James Brander, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, says there are limits to pulling the Canadian card.
"The strategy of saying, 'I'm from Canada and you know our business culture is relatively honest, so you should do business with me' doesn't get you too far – and would give me reason not to trust them," says Dr. Brander, Asia Pacific professor in international business and public policy at Sauder. "But what does work is if you can say, 'Here is what I have done and my track record, and here is how you can check on my reputation as a company.' What counts a lot more is your own business's reputation, integrity, performance and reliability."
He says companies can also capitalize abroad by playing up Canada's "relevant national characteristics" – for instance, the country's solid and reputable legal system, or efficient and effective regulatory system for food.
Dr. Leonardelli adds that the polite card needs to be played judiciously, such as during negotiations. "Being polite doesn't necessarily mean you're communicating what you need to communicate ... but potentially it could be an advantage after you negotiate – because you want them to come back and continue with you.
"Carrying through with terms of an agreement once the negotiation is done [for instance] speaks to the ability to establish a relationship and maintain it."
Research indicates people who are strongly motivated both to help others and to succeed themselves are the most successful, notes Philadelphia-based researcher Reb Rebele, who frequently collaborates with the university of Pennsylvania's Adam Grant, Wharton School professor and author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Dr. Grant's 2014 book summarizes numerous studies that show "givers are more likely to end up at the top of the success ladder in domains as diverse as sales, engineering, and medicine," Mr. Rebele points out in an e-mail interview.
"Being a taker, on the other hand – or cutthroat and focused purely on your own interests … tends to only create short-term advantages that disappear the longer you work with someone or in a particular industry," warns Mr. Rebele, who works in applied psychology and people analytics at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is an assistant instructor in the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program.
For his part, Mr. Milmine says he takes his clients' feedback seriously – without being a pushover. "The first thing I do when I get a complaint is say, 'I'm sorry you're having a problem,'" he says.
If someone questions the thickness of the barbecue sauce, for instance, he explains he has to keep true to the original recipe so it isn't runny, and "nine times out of 10 they're happy with the result they've gotten back." When he started the business, some customers complained about the $8 purchase price per bottle, so he bought more bottles in bulk from his Toronto supplier, and preprinted labels to cut costs to the point that he could reduce the price to $7, without negatively affecting his profit margin.
Should being a friendly Canadian have its limits?
"I would encourage any business to focus on being sincerely helpful – to customers, employees, partners, etc. – without losing sight of their own goals and interests," says Mr. Rebele.
Nicer up north
A McMaster University study released earlier this year is among the research indicating Canadians' reputation for niceness is not just anecdotal.
The study, by two PhD candidates in the Hamilton university's department of linguistics, found Canadians on Twitter tended to use more positive phrases such as "great," "amazing" and "beautiful," while Americans more commonly used negative words such as "hate," "tired," "hurt" and "annoying." As well, the Reputation Institute, a U.S.-based group that measures and tracks general public and multi-stakeholder perceptions about companies, has ranked Canada consistently in the top of countries with the best reputation. Usually No. 1, Canada took second place behind Sweden in 2016.
Companies such as apparel manufacturers Canada Goose (known for its extreme-weather parkas) and Roots (with its iconic beaver logo on its leather goods and apparel) have prospered by playing up their Canadian identities – emphasizing superior quality, sound business dealings, and commitment to environmental and charitable initiatives. (Canada Goose, which was founded in Canada in 1957, is now majority owned by U.S. private equity firm Bain Capital, but has kept all manufacturing in Canada. Roots was founded here in 1973 by Don Green and Michael Budman, who retain minority stake after selling majority stake to global private investment firm Searchlight Capital).