Peter Donolo, "Branding Canada would be money well spent," thestar.com
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If you’re a Canadian who has travelled abroad over the last 10 months, chances are something like this has happened to you. You jump into a taxi at a foreign airport. The cabbie asks you where you’re from. You reply “Canada” and that’s his cue to launch into rhapsodies about Justin Trudeau.
In fact, the response is pretty well the same across the board — from hard-nosed business executives, to jaded journalists, to diplomatic and political veterans — “You Canadians are so lucky.” “We wish we had a leader like yours.”
It’s important not to read too much into this infatuation. Like all long-distance crushes, it is largely a grass-is-always-greener phenomenon. But those conditions won’t be disappearing any time soon. And Trudeau’s embrace of pluralism and diversity, his unabashed championing of globalism and open trade — even the relentless optimism of his “sunny ways” — will continue to stand in sharp relief against the prevailing winds of retrenchment, protectionism, sectarianism, xenophobia and political polarization gripping much of the world.
And yes, the PM’s youth and non-stop energy — and even the millennial glamour that is an undeniable part of his appeal — will continue to be assets for a while to come. Just remember, for example, the next American president — whichever candidate wins — will be old enough to be Justin Trudeau’s mother or father.
Essentially, from the moment he took office — from the Davos glitziest in January, to this month’s whirlwind trip to China — the prime minister has cannily seized on his international star appeal to try to create commercial benefit for the Canadian economy. And the right people are noticing. Witness last week’s comments from Jack Ma, the founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba: “Mr. Trudeau also has a very, very special aura — in him you can see and feel the spark, image and confidence of Canada ... He is the future of Canada.”
The challenge is how to build this opportunity. Our prime minister can and should be the door opener. But he can’t be the whole show. No one individual can be. What we need is an integrated, comprehensive and ongoing branding and marketing campaign that can capitalize on the new buzz about our prime minister and our country. The world wants a little more Canada. Let’s give it to them. Not in episodic prime ministerial visits, but in a sustained, aggressive, and decidedly, well, un-Canadian way.
The first step should be to create a true international non-partisan marketing consortium for Canada, involving federal and provincial governments and the private sector. Give this new agency the means and the authority to map out and execute a sustained campaign. Above all, remove it from any hint of politics or partisanship.
In the 1990s, Prime Minister Jean Chretien broke new ground, bringing all of Canada’s provincial premiers along on a successful run of Team Canada trade missions. Trudeau should reinstate that initiative and go one better, bringing along Canada’s opposition leaders on missions that promote our country. The fact is that a strong bipartisan consensus exists regarding the Canadian model — economically in terms of trade, and socially in terms of the value of, for example, diversity and a strong social safety net. Whatever our politics, when we’re abroad we all promote Canada. Let’s use that common ground to grow our economy and further our country’s interests.
Similarly, a successful campaign would also deploy the global diaspora of Canadians. Some three million Canadians live abroad. They include social and business leaders, and an impressive clutch of internationally renowned artists and entertainers — some of the leading stars in contemporary pop culture. They all prize their Canadian identity and want to see Canada succeed. Let’s harness their connections and drawing power for this project.
What would an international campaign look like? In short, bringing Canada to the world and the world to Canada.
In terms of the former, that would mean Canadian commercial and trade fairs, festivals and cultural celebrations in the world’s leading cities. It would mean more, and bigger, trade missions. It would mean advertising and promotion abroad on an unprecedented level, along with an emphasis on public diplomacy beyond anything Canada has previously undertaken.
In terms of the latter, it would mean bringing in the leading thinkers, capitalists, opinion leaders — from global CEOs to international site locators to Nobel Prize-winning scientists — to see Canada up close. Regardless of our conceits, our country is not on the international circuit. And a faint — albeit very positive — sense of Canada won’t seal the deal for investment or relocation. We need to bring these decision makers here — on our dime.
This kind of international campaign would not come cheap. We live in world in which Coca Cola spends $3 billion a year in advertising and the average Hollywood summer blockbusters have a budget well north of $100 million. Canada has an annual GDP of $2.3 trillion. Surely, between the public and private sector, we can pull together $100 million a year (the budget of a single Hollywood summer movie) to aggressively promote Canada and grow that GDP.
This will not be an easy sell in a country that begrudges a cabinet minister the use of an Air Canada lounge. Or where turf wars too often keep us from acting in our collective self-interest. In the Greater Toronto Region, for example, efforts to bring together the myriad of small-time local foreign investment attraction operations into a single regionwide agency have been glacially slow — and that’s with all the governments supporting the move!
The risk is that we Canadians will continue to bask in the current spotlight, and enjoy the frisson of this global version of Trudeaumania with nothing substantial to show for it.
The fact is that the qualities Trudeau is being celebrated for internationally are, writ-large, pretty well what makes Canada so important in today’s fractured and very edgy world. Our stability. Our inclusiveness. Our civility and fairness. Our essentially post-national sensibility. People around the world look at us and they see the future — or rather, the best future. It’s our moment. Let’s seize it.
Peter Donolo is vice chairman of Hill + Knowlton Canada. He was director of communications to Prime Minister Jean Chretien.