A Canada Day roundup of brands we’re watching

At Pilot, we’re obsessed with brands that reach critical inflection points. We can’t help it: We specialize in helping clients successfully navigate strategic moments in their evolution to reach what we like to call their “next.” So to celebrate Canada Day, here are eight Canadian brands worth watching. Each has reached that pivotal moment. What they do next will determine whether they soar or sag.

Hudson’s Bay Company

HBC has talked about taking its brand global for years. Now it appears to be finally doing it— HBC chairman Richard Baker recently announced plans to open up to 20 stores in the Netherlands by 2017. From a branding perspective, the timing couldn’t be better: Canada’s the hottest country in the English-speaking world right now. (Exhibit A: Trudeau. Exhibit: B. Trump. Exhibit C: Boris Johnson.) How HBC leverages Brand Canada abroad will be interesting to see, but it’s chosen its first international market wisely: the Dutch have had a strong affinity for Canadians since World War 2, when Canuck soldiers liberated their country from the Nazis. If HBC can subtly hint at that history — a tulip or two on those multicoloured blankets? — it’ll be golden.

St.-Hubert/Swiss Chalet

We’re watching this newly combined company with bated breath. Swiss Chalet and St.-Hubert were once the two solitudes of Canadian rotisserie chicken: the former was the go-to choice in English-speaking provinces, while the latter primarily served Quebec. But St.-Hubert fans have been fretting about a possible merger of the two brands since March, when Swiss Chalet’s parent company, Cara Operations, acquired the Quebec-based chain. From a marketing perspective, the key thing to remember here is that Quebeckers are passionate about only-in-la-belle-province, distinct-society brands (there’s a reason why Jean Coutu is one of the most popular drugstore chains in the country yet many Canadians have never heard of it). Marketers mess with them at their peril. So our prediction is that the two brands will remain distinct. Which is good news for those of us who swear by their gravy.

Four Seasons

How does a luxury hotel chain compete with the rise of a sharing economy that offers not just 300-thread count sheets, but also allows its members to stay in Antebellum mansions and French chateaux? Four Seasons will need to do something even more special to win – and keep – luxury travelers as it embarks on a massively ambitious expansion. (Founder Isadore Sharp says he wants to double the size of the chain, fast.) One way to succeed will be to focus on building and strengthening relationships with customers: By finding ways to demonstrate a longterm commitment to loyal travelers (keeping a record of lighting and heating preferences is one way they already they do this), Four Seasons could make Airbnb look like a purveyor of cheap one-night stands.

Canadian banks

Collectively, Canada’s Big Five banks are under siege. Having already lost ground to a wave of no-fee, online competitors, they’re now trying to fend off a slew of new robo-advisors, who promise all the same things the banks’ portfolio advisors do, but for a tiny percentage of their fees. How will banks win back customers? By bringing a little humanity back to an industry that’s often viewed as coldhearted and money-grubbing. BMO’s latest campaign, the BMO Effect, takes a step in the right direction: By surprising customers with personal touches (like actually answering a phone call!), BMO comes across as a bank with heart.


It started as a bookstore that also sold CDs, but 20 years later, with the opening of a new format store in Toronto’s Sherway Gardens mall, Indigo has expanded into something it now calls a “cultural department store.” The new Indigo sells far more than just books – its massively expanded inventory now includes jewelry, wall art, sleepwear, travel accessories and electronics – and here’s why it works. CEO Heather Reisman has deftly used books as a signifier for upmarket good taste. If you’re shopping at Indigo, you’re a culture-class consumer. The very act of being in the store makes you feel like someone who belongs to a book club. Even if you’re really there to buy that cute new Kate Spade water bottle.

Imaginea Energy Corp

You may not have heard of this Calgary-based oil company, but we’re excited by its potential to put a sunny, sustainable new face on an all-too-often wasteful, resource-sucking industry. CEO Suzanne West built her tiny little company with big ambitions: to use renewable energy to produce oil as cheaply and cleanly as possible. West has industry cred (she’s a chemical engineer by training and a business veteran with experience building and successfully selling exploration and production companies) and says she’s in this for the long haul. This is a brand, and a good news story, that Canada’s oilpatch desperately needs.

Sophie Gregoire TM

We’re fans of how Gregoire is rebranding the role of Ottawa’s Most Important Political Spouse — she brings a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-make-Canada-better determination to the business of being married to JT, and she does it with just the right amount of sparkly, self-deprecating humour. Gregoire (and okay, her handlers) engineered a masterful comedic performance at a recent Press Galley dinner. The bit ended with a prolonged embrace of Justin that recalled their controversial Vogue publicity shoot and a sly whisper that was meant to be overheard: “Did they get the shot?” It was a sassy acknowledgment to her audience that this first lady understands her own public image. Her brand isn’t serious. Maybe we should lighten up too.

Happy Canada Day!