Co.Design

A Deft Rebranding Of Canada Tackles Its Hazy Identity Abroad

Don’t know much about Canada, eh? You’re not alone.

For five seasons beginning in 1987, MTV produced a goofy but smart trivia game show called “Remote Control.” Three contestants sat in leather La-Z-Boys and answered questions under headers like “Bald Guys,” “Brady Physics,” and the trickiest of them all—“Dead or Canadian.” Rich Little: dead or Canadian? PBS’s Robert McNeil: dead or Canadian? (Answers: They’re both Canadian.) Why was “Dead or Canadian” such a stumper category? Because we Americans assume that all famous people were born here, and if you’re not famous, you might as well be dead. When asked to name a Canadian, the proverbial man on the street usually draws a blank.

As part of its redesign series, “Studio 360,” a radio program hosted by Kurt Andersen and produced by WNYC and PRI, decided to tackle Canada’s image problem, particularly in the U.S., and commissioned Bruce Mau Design to head up the project. The fact that BMD had offices in both New York and Toronto made it a particularly appropriate choice, even though the final design team was comprised solely of transplanted Americans. “Initially, we had Canadians and Americans participating in it,” says Hunter Tura, the studio’s president and CEO. “At a certain point, we made the decision to ban Canadians from working on it, because we felt that the discussion was bogging down into a number of the clichés we felt we wanted to get past. The idea was to look at the problem in a fresh and clear-eyed way.”

BMD began the six-week creative process by interviewing both everyday and notable Canadians, including Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson from the comedy-sketch TV show Kids in the Hall and the author and artist Douglas Coupland, who declined to participate, saying “I like the way we are.” The BMD team ultimately subscribed to the view that Canada didn’t need to be rebranded, Americans just needed to be educated, hence the tagline: “Know Canada” (inspired by “You Ottawana get to know us,” a slogan submitted by a “360” listener).

Creating a new visual language meant jettisoning images of beavers, hockey, snowshoes, and even the beloved maple leaf. Early on in the exercise, one of the designers drew a Canadian flag, placing a question mark where the maple leaf would be. That turned out to be a breakthrough moment, with the designers deciding to retain the iconic bars of the flag to frame 21st-century symbols of Canadian culture—everything from Arcade Fire and Justin Bieber to socialized health care and Ryan Gosling. “By removing the maple leaf and adding imagery, the system became totally flexible,” says Sarah Foelske, the associate creative director who headed the team. “We could speak to politicians. We could speak to creatives. We could speak to so many different things while also staying true to what Canada really was.”

BMD hopes that the Canadian government will be interested in adopting the campaign, now that the materials have been made public at KnowCanada.org, just in time for July 4th—uh, I mean Canada Day on July 1st. I didn’t know there was such a thing, either.

[All photo credits at KnowCanada.org]

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25 Comments

  • Scott Cooper

    As a New Zealander I kind of get the frustration with people's knowledge of your country being limited to a handful of cliches (rugby, sheep, hobbits) rather than the way you see yourself.

    I also get that it feels a bit desperate to try to change someone's perception of you (especially "big brother next door") but at least this is a lot smarter than the cringey recent US tourism advertising I've been seeing here in London: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

    You could always go post-cultural cringe (to steal a term from NZ) and roll out the old Molson ad, which is awesome ;)  It might not answer the brief though...
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... 

  • Mrmatthewhill

    Ah Wayne and Shuster, Kids in the Hall, the Frantics, Air Farce, and Rick Mercer would be proud, they may have even made a sketch about this website, on CBC.

    But I didn't see PET, or the world's tallest free-standing structure, or even the Avro- Aero, Laura Secord, or Maple Syrup, No Jim Carey, no Time Zones (or Fleming), No insulin, and no Lucy Maude's Anne series, And no Degrassi?

    I mean where are the Parliament Buildings?  The Badlands?  Celine Dion, Anne Murray, The Tragically Hip or Blue Rodeo? Or Even the streets of Old Montreal?

    No portrayal of the Metric System?  Stratford?  No Ojibway, Haida and countless other First Nations People?  What about Niagara Falls (I mean If Nick Lawenda could walk across a tight rope to get into Canada, that has to be worth a mention)?

    No Mention of the St Lawrence Water Way, the Water Lock systems, the Plains, the BC Mountains...Or the spectacular ocean and geological views of NFLD, NS, PEI?

    And finally our beer...How could you forget our beer?  Molson's Canadian, Labatt's Blue, Alexander Keith's...And the wine, how could you not mention our international wine...Okanagan Valley?

    I am Matthew and I AM CANADIAN!

  • Helen

    As a proud Canadian, not really getting why Canada needs to sell it's awareness to some Americans.

  • Linda P.

    I had read 'daft', and while I thought it was a bit rude, I found myself agreeing. I don't think this works at all.

  • BarryL.

    I think the title says "deft" rebranding not the silly and foolish "daft" rebranding. :)

  • Logan Vickery

    aye there northern neighbors. Let's call a truce and drink some of that beer eh?  We're practically the same anywho (except those "more French than the French" folk but they can't read this...)

  • chris

    I think the red bars are clever, though if people are that clueless about Canada, they may not get the reference to the flag. I also think its makes us Canadians look a bit weak- almost asking for people to know about us. It's a great country- we don't need better PR for it.

  • Arup Bhanja

    Like this ... also should mention Rasmus Lerdof the man behind PHP the most used programming lang. on the web - who is Candian.

    What I find distinctly Canadian in the flag idea is the 2 vertical bars sort of restrict everyone / thing to some sort of limit unlike the US flag in which the red stripes are horizontal and flowing [perhaps explains why US has been able to export so much tech, culture, etc.] and Canadian stuff got recognized only when it went to US - remember Celine Dion?

  • Oanster

    Tthe design of the flag explains the U.S.'s supposed superiority in the export of culture and technology...WHAT?
    In addition, what is distinctly Canadian about restricting everyone?

  • fred hart

    It's a conceptually stimulating design proposal that uses celebrities and accomplishments/milestones in association with Canada to further our understanding and correlations. Execution is another topic...

  • Cody

    After spending a couple of minutes crafting a constructive comment on my mobile this morning, I spent about 10 minutes just trying to post it and never succeeded. Just thought I'd stop back by on the desktop to complain…

    Get with the mobile design FastCo.

  • steven

    the title of this post says "rebranding" yet, "The BMD team ultimately subscribed to the view that Canada didn’t need to be rebranded, Americans just needed to be educated, " clearly is not what Bruce Mau is trying to do with this solution. I have great respect for the said studio, and had I not read the article and simply went with the headline, i'd have lost all of my respect for the studio.

  • Stef Marcinkowski

    THE LONG RED ONES: I especially love the podium treatment and I have a sudden urge to play Tetris.

  • Joel Blair

    Nice work. Using the iconic bars of the flag is a really interesting idea and works great to frame Canadian icons, inventions and in the case of the podium, an live person. I can see this tool used effectively across a broad campaign. Whether or not you like the elements BMD chose to frame is less significant, this could change.

    I can imagine every sixth poster including a full Canadian flag graphic, because one of the things Americans need an education on in what the Canadian flag looks like. Otherwise the significance of the red bars would be lost on some.