The Great One gives Tim Hortons a marketing assist

Who: Tim Hortons and Gut Miami, with OPC for production, Cosmo Street Editorial, Human for music, Beverley for sound design and mix, Horizon for media and North Strategic for PR.

What: “The Autograph,” a new spot documenting a 1968 meeting between a young Wayne Gretzky and the coffee chain’s founder, Tim Horton, which concluded with the star signing a napkin. The ad suggests that the meeting was instrumental in setting the youngster on his path to greatness, concluding with the super: “The beginning of something great.”

It’s the first time #99 has appeared in advertising for Tim Hortons.

When & Where: The spot debuted on YouTube and Tim Hortons’ social channels today, making its TV debut during the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships later this month in advance of a broader national rollout.

Beginning on Jan. 15, Tim Hortons will also sell a limited-edition $17.99 tumbler featuring Gretzky’s autograph.

Why: The spot, the latest in the coffee chain’s ongoing “True Stories” marketing platform—this and this—stemmed from a September coffee meeting between Gretzky and Paloma Azulay, chief marketing officer for Tim Hortons, at which he told her about meeting the chain’s namesake and how his father had kept his autograph for more than 50 years.

“[I] asked him a question I’ve been asking everyone I meet with: Do you have a true story you want to share about Tims?’ Wayne’s story was almost too good to be true, but it was, and I knew that this was a diamond in the rough and that we needed to share and bring this story life in an iconic way,” she says.

The film showcases two things, she says: The power of a single moment to inspire and change the course of someone’s life and cherishing tradition. “[Walter Gretzky] knew how important this moment was to Wayne, so he kept the autograph all these years and now he gets to relive this moment with his son,” she says.

How: Directed by the Canadian team of Jon and Torey, the full 90-second spot chronicles the 1968 meeting between Gretzky and Tim Horton at the latter’s newly opened coffee shop in Brantford, Ont.

The company worked to ensure that all of the elements, from the restaurant’s exterior sign to the cars in the parking lot, the cup Horton is drinking from and the tables and chairs, was period appropriate. “We truly wanted to transport people back in time to the moment that inspired one of the most decorated Canadian hockey players of all time,” says Azulay.

The spot then cuts to quick takes of important moments in the hockey stars career from youth hockey to his retirement (not mentioned is his short stint with the St. Louis Blues, which we Detroit Red Wings fans fondly remember for this).

About 68,000 children auditioned for the role of the young Gretzky, which ultimately went to a youngster from Campbellford, Ont. named Gordie Gilders (now THAT’s a hockey name).

“We wanted to be as authentic as possible, which made the casting a big challenge because we needed someone who not only looked just like Wayne, but could act just like him when he was young,” says Azulay.

Anything interesting about the shoot?: “One of the most incredible things was when he arrived, the energy Wayne brings to set is amazing,” says Azulay. “The relationship between Wayne and Walter is so authentic—it was beautiful to have them on camera helping each other.”

Also, Walter is apparently a huge fan of Timbits. “He couldn’t stop eating them,” says Azulay.

The Gretzky family home also appears several times throughout the spot, including the opening frame with Walter carrying the box containing the Tim Horton autograph, the end of the spot when the two men are looking at the autograph, and in the background when the young Wayne is practicing on the famous backyard rink.

But Gretzky retired 20 years ago. Does he still have cultural resonance?: “We hope this ad will resonate with everyone,” says Azulay. “It’s a truly universal insight: how one generation inspires the next. But it strikes a particular chord with hockey fans and sports lovers. We want to inspire people and show how something as simple as an autograph on a napkin can be the beginning of something great.”




Chris Powell