Cheryl Chappel
4 months ago - 7 min read

Iconic Canadian Brands of Christmas Past and Present

Reflections from a brand strategist
Christmas brands

When I set out to build Think Marketing, I had a pretty ambitious dream that I shared personally with “The Board,” which is what I affectionately call my parents. I wanted to build a Canadian agency dedicated to providing high quality branding and digital marketing solutions to small businesses. This passion grew from a genuine desire to support entrepreneurialism in our country.

I’ve always admired entrepreneurs, and the courage and passion they bring to our communities. As a young child, I watched my parents start and build companies from a worn out 1960s red and white checkered table in our basement in Montreal. There were no windows, no mahogany desks, no fancy leather chairs. In fact, there weren’t even any computers at that time—but I remember the furious clickety clacking of my Mom’s old Smith Corona typewriter which I could hear from the kitchen upstairs. Little did I know as a small child that these amazing Canadian entrepreneurs were building businesses that would eventually employ more than 1,500 Canadians.

I always knew when Christmas was finally going to start in the Chappel household when the clickety clacking would stop around noon on Christmas Eve, and my parents would set work aside and make their way upstairs.

Canada has a long history of courageous entrepreneurialism resulting in iconic brands that are embedded in our hearts – especially at Christmas. Here are some stories about a few iconic Canadian brands that have shaped my own Christmas memories.

Birks

It’s amazing how simple packaging can instantly evoke a brand. Such is the case with the iconic Birks blue box.

From the age of 13, my Grandmother would give me beautiful pieces of Birks silverware for Christmas. Today, every granddaughter in our family has many Birks blue boxes containing an impressive collection of silverware suitable to entertain the Queen.

If you grew up in Montreal, you most certainly know the Birks brand. Henry Birks was a Canadian businessman and founder of Henry Birks and Sons. With an investment of $3,000, Birks opened his own small jewelry shop in 1879 in the heart of Montreal. In 1893, he went into partnership with his three sons and renamed the company Henry Birks and Sons. Starting in 1901, Birks expanded across the country with stores opening in Canada’s largest cities, and thus began the growth of an iconic Canadian brand that would become the country’s most beloved purveyor of fine jewelry, timepieces, silverware, and gifts.

Canadian Tire

As Canadians, many of us grew up waiting for the Canadian Tire Christmas catalogue to arrive. We would flip through the pages, eagerly looking for ideas for our Letter to Santa. Today, it’s called the Wow guide, and we still get excited when it lands in our mailboxes.

Canadian Tire is another great Canadian entrepreneur story. In 1922, John William Billes and his brother Alfred bought Hamilton Tire and Garage Limited in Toronto with their combined savings of $1,800. The following year they moved the garage to downtown Toronto where they began the conversion to a garage/retail business. In 1927 they incorporated under the name Canadian Tire Corporation Ltd.

In 1934, Canadian Tire opened its first official associate store in Hamilton Ontario, and eventually became the most successful Canadian owned and operated franchise in the country’s history, expanding into a nationwide network of dealer operated associate stores.

More importantly, Canadian Tire has touched the hearts of many Canadians – especially at Christmas. Here is one of my favourite Canadian Tire Christmas ads:

Ganong

Ganong’s Delecto chocolates hold a very special place in this Mother’s heart. A box of Delecto chocolates was the very first Christmas gift my children gave me that was bought with their own allowance money.

Ganong Chocolates

Ganong Bros., Limited is Canada’s oldest candy company. It was founded by James and Gilbert Ganong in 1873 in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, where it continues to operate to this day.

Ganong began selling its first chocolate bars in 1910. In 1885, Ganong candy maker Frank Sparhawk invented the famous Ganong original Chicken Bones – a spicy cinnamon flavoured candy filled with bitter-sweet chocolate. Chicken Bones remain a Christmas favourite to this day, and find their way into many Canadian Christmas stockings. Ganongs was also the first to introduce a heart-shaped box of chocolates in North America, which were originally sold for presents over the Christmas season before they gained popularity for Valentine’s Day.

Lululemon

After we indulge in chocolate, our minds naturally turn to exercise—and there’s one fitness apparel brand that so many of us Canadians flock to.

My daughter is very spoiled by her Grandmother each Christmas, and gets a gift certificate under the tree from Lululemon. While she struts about with her Lululemon gear, I stick to what I jokingly call my Wallylemons – the yoga tights I buy at Walmart.

Lululemon

Lululemon was founded in 1998 by Chip Wilson in in Vancouver. Initially, Lululemon was a design studio by day and a yoga studio by night, but eventually turned into a standalone store in November 2000. The rest is Canadian brand history. Rather than spend a lot on advertising, the Vancouver-based brand has typically relied on grassroots marketing and word-of-mouth. While this strategy has been successful, it has also backfired at times, as illustrated by Lululemon’s now notorious see-through-pants debacle of 2013, which seriously affected the company’s brand image. On a good note, I safely covered my ass with my Wallylemons in 2013!

Stanfields

One of my favourite Christmas memories was the year my two young children and I drove from Halifax to Toronto to spend the holidays with my parents.

We were all downstairs waiting for Dad to come down to hand out the gifts under the tree. That year, he decided as a joke to come down wearing his red Stanfields long underwear, with a Santa hat and big black boots. Well, the sight of my Dad in his Stanfields with his skinny legs was one of the most hilarious memories my children and I share!

Stanfield’s Limited is a well-known Canadian garment manufacturer based in Truro Nova Scotia, known around the world for their men’s underwear. The company was founded in 1856 when Charles Stanfield and his brother-in-law Samuel Dawson established Tryon Woollen Mills in Prince Edward Island. Charles sold his interest to Samuel a decade later and moved to Truro, where he established the Truro Woollen Mills on Brunswick Street, Truro. In 1896, Charles sold his business to his two sons, John and Frank Stanfield. Together, John and Frank developed the famous “Shrink-proof Process” which catapulted the little Truro underwear company to fame during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 as prospectors headed north to the harsh terrain of the Yukon. The Stanfield’s “Unshrinkable” Underwear was essential for prospectors and miners who could find no substitute for the warm, heavy, underwear.

Today, Stanfield’s remains an iconic Canadian brand and rightfully earned its reputation as “the underwear company.” Make sure you include some in the stockings of the men in your life!

Westjet

My last Canadian brand Christmas story is a WestJet tale.

Founded by Clive Beddoe, David Neeleman, Mark Hill, Tim Morgan, and Donald Bell, WestJet was based on the low-cost carrier business model pioneered by Southwest Airlines and Morris Air in the US. Since its first flight in 1996, Westjet has put its guests and their people first, and has become one of Canada’s most admired and respected corporate cultures.

One Christmas, my two kids and I flew on WestJet to the Bahamas on Christmas Eve to join my parents for Christmas. As many of you may know, my son has special needs. One of his most prized possessions is his coin collection, which my Father got him started on, and continues to help him build.

That year, Grant insisted on bringing the entire coin collection with us to the Bahamas to show his Grandfather. I begrudgingly agreed, and lugged those coins in my carryon bag through multiple airports on the long journey to the Bahamas. We also got stopped and inspected at every security gate I might add.

As we were waiting in Toronto for our connecting flight, the WestJet team was keeping people entertained and in the holiday spirit with contests. The last contest was to find the oldest coin amongst passengers waiting for our flight. Whoever could present the oldest coin would win a trip wherever Westjet flew.

Well, you can guess what happened next.

Grant presented his prized 1901 coin from his collection, which won him a second trip to see his Grandparents the following summer in Toronto!

Here is one of my favourite holiday videos from Westjet, which reminds me of the many special memories they have created for me and my two kids over the years:

As we continue to build Think Marketing, I cannot help but be inspired by these iconic Canadian brands and the courageous entrepreneurs behind them. At Think, we truly believe that every small business has the potential to become an iconic brand in its own right. As we head into 2018, we are as committed as ever to bringing big ideas to small business to help them build their dreams.

Happy holidays from all of us at Think!

Author
Cheryl Chappel

Cheryl Chappel is President and CEO of Think Marketing. As Think’s Chief Brand, Marketing, and Customer Experience Consultant, she helps clients clarify, live, and package their brand.