Sitting in a Toronto hotel room on Sept. 7, 2019, Sleep Country Canada president Stewart Schaefer had a vision for where the 27-year-old company could take its marketing in order to speak to a new generation of customers.
Schaefer had just watched Mississauga, Ont.’s Bianca Andreescu defeat Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final, becoming the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam tennis tournament. “I picked up the phone, called my head of marketing and said ‘I have a brilliant idea. I’d love to get Bianca to be an ambassador for us,'” said Schaefer.
Sleep Country had already started to incorporate messaging around the health and wellness benefits of a good night’s sleep into its marketing, backed by research identifying it as a health imperative capable of contributing to lower instances of everything from cardiovascular disease, to obesity, cancer and accidents.
With Andreescu, Schaefer saw an opportunity to partner with an up-and-coming sports phenomenon who could not only credibly deliver that message, but do so in a way that would resonate with an entirely new (and younger) customer.
His first meeting with Andreescu quickly confirmed she could be the “empowering” brand ambassador he’d envisioned.
“She started talking sleep and how it has an impact in terms of her performance,” he said. “She made a comment that stuck with me: ‘You can have a bad night’s sleep, go into the office and you feel groggy all day, but then you catch up that night. I don’t have that choice, because if I don’t sleep well and I’m on the court, it directly impacts my performance.’
“I’m looking at my team and thinking ‘Did we feed her some lines?'”
Andreescu represents Sleep Country’s first foray into the world of celebrity endorsement, that is if you don’t include its famous spokesperson Christine McGee—the company co-founder and a 2005 inductee into Canada’s Marketing Hall of Legends.
Schaefer said that Magee enthusiastically endorsed Andreescu as her would-be successor when he informed her of the decision.
Andreescu is among a growing wave of strong, female spokespeople popping in Canadian marketing over the past 18 months or so. They include former Olympic ice dancer Tessa Virtue, for brands including Nivea, Loblaw Companies Ltd. and Buick, and Schitt’s Creek star Annie Murphy for Hello Fresh, Nintendo and Hudson’s Bay.
Schaefer said that having a well-known woman as the face of the brand is part of the brand’s DNA. “We reached out to our teams first to see how they felt about it and there was a ginormous pride factor for [many reasons]: a woman, someone in the spotlight, a good potential role model especially, but especially for kids and young girls.
“All the magical things we want to be associated with as an organization, Bianca can bring to life.”
The first ad featuring Andreescu is a TV and online spot from Publicis Canada called “There’s no dream without sleep.” It shows the tennis star in a training montage before concluding with her peacefully sleeping. “The dream is always there,” she says in a voiceover. “So you push yourself. Every muscle. Every rep. And then you sleep… to recover, recharge and refuel. Because there’s no dream without sleep.”
Another ad features the tennis star, wearing pyjamas and speaking directly to the camera, talking about the importance of a good night’s sleep and how it’s essential to her performance on the court (see both ads below).
Sleep Country has traditionally leaned on radio for its marketing, but has been incorporating more TV and online video over the past 18 months in what Schaefer characterized as a “dramatic” shift in its approach to media.
In particular, the move to incorporate more digital in its marketing reflects not only the channel’s growing importance to the company’s business, but also a shift in consumer habits that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
But hadn’t the country’s largest mattress retailer already built its brand using one of the most famous jingles in Canadian marketing history? To borrow from that instantly recognizable ditty, why bother using anything else?
Schaefer said the brand’s longstanding appeal has been among people in their late 30s to late 50s. Partnering with Andreescu offered a way to continue attracting those brand loyalists given the broad appeal of tennis, but also a way of increasing its appear among the younger Canadians who follow the rising star. “It checked all the boxes,” he said.
Sleep Country had intended to feature Andreescu in its marketing last year, only to see its plans derailed by the pandemic. “The last thing I wanted to do was launch this uplifting partnership at a time when people were suffering a lot of misery,” said Schaefer.
Instead, the company pivoted away from promoting mattresses and pillows, putting out a simple ad called “Good night” under its new positioning “Sleep well. Stay well.” The ad featured the exterior of homes with the words “Good night” appearing on screen in a variety of languages and a voiceover urging Canadians to wish someone “good night.”
The famous “Why buy a mattress anywhere else?” slogan hasn’t appeared in Sleep Country’s marketing since March 2020, although Schaefer said it’s too early to completely write off something with so much equity. “I’m never going to completely abandon one of the most iconic jingles that there is in Canadian retail… but for the foreseeable future, this is the messaging.”
Asked if there was any trepidation about leaving behind a comfortable brand platform that had served the company so well for nearly three decades for the relatively uncharted waters of a celebrity spokesperson and new brand positioning, Schaefer was forthright. “The answer is 110% yes,” he said with a laugh. “[But] the beauty is we’re not abandoning it and we can always bring it back.”
The new marketing strategy comes at a time when consumers have never had more choice when it comes to buying a mattress, with brick-and-mortar retailers forced to contend with a glut of direct-to-consumer mattress companies including Endy, Casper and Purple.
Rather than get into a mattress war with its upstart rivals, however, Sleep Country has opted for bedroom diplomacy. It partnered with European mattress-in-a-box company Simba to launch its line of products in Canada in May 2018, and acquired Endy for $88 million later that same year (although the two companies operate independently).
In October, it struck a deal with Purple to become its official Canadian distributor, is selling its Bloom mattress in a box at Walmart.ca, and has a new deal with Best Buy to sell a curated selection of sleep solutions on the Best Buy Marketplace and become the exclusive supplier for the traditional mattress category on BestBuy.ca.
All of these moves have significantly strengthened the company’s nascent online business, which accounted for 20% of its $248.9 million in fourth quarter sales. It achieved standout business results in a challenging period that saw its store network closed for 10.5% of operating days during the quarter (including 65% of stores closed during Boxing Week), the most significant retail week on its annual calendar.
“We’ve become a digital force because we understand very clearly that it doesn’t matter the way we want to sell, it’s the way the consumer wants to be served,” said Schaefer. “That was a huge shift in our thinking that we need to be customer-centric. The ecosystem we’re creating is to serve Canadians anywhere and anytime they want to have something that relates to sleep.”
The partnership with Andreescu, which Schaefer said he expects to continue through at least the next two years, also represents more of a long play for a company whose marketing has traditionally been oriented towards shorter-term objectives.
“This is not something where you put something on sale and you expect to see sales go up that weekend,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s about increasing awareness… but if you ask me what my goal is, it’s for people to start thinking about sleep being really important in their day-to-day life.”
But video also brings more intangible benefits in terms of what the company wants to convey, he said. “When you want that inspirational, goosebump, hope feeling, a visual component resonates well beyond an audio message,” he said.
Partnering with Andreescu, then, could be the first step towards becoming an ace marketer.