Inside Tim Hortons’ partnership with Canadian pop star Shawn Mendes

Last week, Tim Hortons announced a new partnership with Canadian pop sensation Shawn Mendes timed to coincide with his homecoming show in Toronto this week. Developed by Miami’s GUT Agency, “Home is Where the Heart Is” includes TV, online video and out-of-home advertising, along with a line of limited-edition Shawn Mendes cups.

Partnering with a global superstar is a bit of a departure for Tim Hortons, which has traditionally relied on a combination of sports and feel-good Canadiana for its marketing. But in an interview with The Message, global head of creative excellence Paloma Azulay stressed that the campaign is fundamentally about Canadian values like generosity and kindness.

“Tim Hortons is a brand that is part of Canadian popular culture, and even though our roots have been in the hockey world and sports sponsorship, we are… very open to partnering with everyone that shares our Canadian values,” she said. “It’s not that we’re shifting strategy, it’s more about becoming part of the conversation and partnering with Canadians that share the same values as us.”

It is Tim Hortons’ first time aligning with such a high-profile celebrity, (Mendes, 21, became the youngest member of Forbes’ Celebrity 100 list earlier this year), although Azulay said the partnership made sense because he remains so connected to his Canadian roots.

The ad shows Mendes returning to his childhood Tim Hortons and paying for a young customer’s hot chocolate. “I never forget where I came from,” he says. The spot was directed by noted music video director Jason Koenig, whose reel includes videos for high-profile music stars including Ed Sheeran, Diplo and Macklemore.

“The intent was not to partner with a celebrity, [because] Tim Hortons doesn’t need brand awareness,” said Azulay. “It was more an opportunity to partner with someone at a unique moment in his life. He’s grown a lot as a musician and has been touring all around the world, but he never forgot his Canadian roots.”

What does this mean for the brand?

There’s little doubt that Tim Hortons has benefited from Mendes’ enormous fanbase. His Instagram post announcing the partnership has garnered more than 4 million views since it debuted on Thursday, and Canadians have been clamouring for the limited-edition cups.

“Our focus is to stay true to our brand essence and I think we can do that by partnering with someone young and modern like Shawn, but this should not come at a price of not staying true to who we are,” said Azulay. “It’s not because we need media or endorsement—it’s because it’s very true for both parties.”

How did it come about?

Azulay says that Tim Hortons was approached by Mendes’ representatives about his sold-out homecoming show at Toronto’s Rogers Centre on Sept. 6, and shared his story about his affection for the brand growing up in Pickering, Ont.

“[Mendes’ representatives] approached us to tell us about Shawn Mendes’ love for Tim Hortons,” says Azulay, who recognized that the narrative would be a perfect fit with the chain’s ongoing “True Stories” marketing platform. “We love to tell ‘True Stories’ to the world, so I said ‘Tell me more about Shawn’s relationship with the brand.'”

The spot blends archival footage of Mendes, including his earliest online videos, with footage captured from a one-day shoot at a Pickering Tim Hortons in early August.

“Shawn was incredible on set. He’s the same loving, kind person that we see,” said Azulay. “That’s exactly why we’re partnering with him, because he’s a person that’s very grounded and down-to-earth. It was a pleasure to work with him.”

Oh, and the Tim Hortons employee that greets both young and (slightly) older Shawn? She’s an actress.

Is this a specific play to attract Gen Z consumers?

Azulay said that partnering with Mendes is a “short-cut” to becoming more relevant with younger Canadians, although “it doesn’t mean that we’re just talking to millennials and Gen Z.”

“Being a brand for everyone, we have messages that have broad age appeal,” she added. “Some of our campaigns are really universal, but we are very mindful that we need to create brand relevance with all age groups.”

While there are no specific plans beyong this current campaign, Azulay said that the brand hopes to maintain a relationship with Mendes. “We don’t like one-offs,” she said.

The cups are popular with fans

Limited-edition cups emblazoned with Mendes’ image began rolling out across Tim Hortons’ approximately 4,000 locations on Friday.

Some Mendes fans took to social media to say they have been thwarted in their efforts to get their hands on the cups, showing their attempts at creating their own.

Tim Hortons has also introduced a line of $15 reusable ceramic cups in select GTA locations while supplies last. “We are seeing a lot of demand,” said Azulay.

Tim Hortons introduces special edition cups throughout the year, including holiday-themed cups, its annual Camp Day cup and of course Roll Up the Rim. “Our cup is one of our most powerful [media vehicles] and we really take care [with how it’s used],” says Azulay. “The cup is the main part of our visual identity.”

Why use GUT Agency for a made-in-Canada spot?

The project’s global nature made it the right fit for GUT Agency, said Azulay. “As we are expanding internationally, GUT has some projects that have a bit more global appeal,” she said.

Zulu Alpha Kilo remains a key agency partner, she stressed. “We are very happy to have both partners in place. They bring a lot of value and thinking to the brand.”

Is Tim Hortons eyeing other opportunities in the music/entertainment world?

In short, no. “We really liked [the Mendes campaign] because it was the right thing to do for the brand,” said Azulay.

Chris Powell