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Roll Up Success

Author Reveals Tales From Under The Rim

June 13, 2008
By Stacy Bradshaw


There is a distinctly Canadian folklore surrounding the Tim Hortons
franchise – started by a Toronto Maple Leaf hockey player, and
glorified in television commercials by little old ladies and curling
rink icemakers.

There is a distinctly Canadian folklore surrounding the Tim Hortons franchise – started by a Toronto Maple Leaf hockey player, and glorified in television commercials by little old ladies and curling rink icemakers.

But the company’s continued success – presumably facilitated by a strategic marketing and advertising plan – is summed up rather simply by Ron Buist as “making due with what you have.”

Credited as the creator of their ‘Roll up the Rim to Win’ contest, Buist chronicles the development of Tim Hortons during his 24 years as marketing director in his book, “Tales from Under the Rim: The Marketing of Tim Hortons.”


rollupsuccessTim Horton started his coffee and donut venture in 1962 by doing what many pro athletes in the United States were doing at the time – using their fame to promote restaurant chains.
The sign at the first Tim’s in North Bay, Ontario, however, read “Tim Hortons Hamburgers.”  Actually, one sign read “Hamburgers,” the other read “Hamburgs.” Tim and his partner, Jim Charade, an ex-drummer from Montreal, couldn’t fit the whole word on the sign; they made due with what they had.
And so the sign endorsed hamburgers, hot dogs, the fact that they were open, and “Oh, by the way,” said Buist, “it’s called Tim Hortons.”

Buist drives home his second point: Tim’s marketing success began by promoting the product before the name.

A picture of the first Tim Hortons donut shop in Hamilton, Ontario, shows a rotating sign displaying most predominately, donuts, then coffee, open seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and “Oh by the way,” repeated Buist, “it’s called Tim Hortons.”

Point taken.  Moving on …
In 1964, Charade sold his share of the Hamilton store to Ron Joyce, a local police officer, for the sum of $10,000. He and Tim made more than $50,000 that year, and according to Buist, can credit their success to the following practices:

•    They utilized Depression era work ethics. 
•    They worked irregular hours.  An NHL hockey player, a police officer and an ex-drummer; they were used to erratic hours.
•    They contributed to the development of  a new food category – snack food. “When I started with the company in 1977 we tried to do research to find out how other companies worked and the only companies we could find were … in the meal business. Hortons is in the snack food business; it fills the odd ball hours,” explained Buist.
•    They started in small communities and worked their way out to larger cities.
•    They had an unusual product. Donuts were a novelty at the time; customers would actually take donuts home and freeze them.
By 1977 there were 79 Tim Hortons stores – 1246 by 1985 – and as a seasonal business, it was most popular in the spring and fall.

“We had a very small advertising budget. I mean tiny.  But we wanted to increase brand awareness and increase coffee sales, particularly in the warm, summer months,” said Buist.

They decided to run a contest to both reward their current customer base and to attract and reward new customers.

Buist started by meeting with the cup manufacturer, considering cups were cheap at four cents a unit and something they already had to purchase.

The manufacturer brought out a roll holding about 15,000 cups, flat before assembly, with a considerable margin of white space.

“I asked, ‘what’s this white space around here?’” Buist began.

The manufacturer explained it was the ledger line, used to print manufacturing information on the inside of the cup.

“Well, what’s the white space at the top?”

“That’s the rim. When it goes through the press, it rolls down and forms the rim.”

“Well, can you print something there?”

“Sure, but when it rolls down, you won’t be able to see it.”

And there it is. I hate to tell you, but it was that simple.

We all know the rest of the story – free donuts, SUVs, mountain bikes and barbeques.  And of course, increased sales for Tim Hortons.

Tim’s further capitalized on the popularity of the contest by never offering it on the small sized cups. And the goods news was, when customers did go to the larger size during the contest, they stuck with it throughout the year.

Buist advised that any contest must be guided with integrity and honesty; the contest must be exactly what you say it is without any variances.

Similarly, there are no variances in Tim Hortons products. Buist said only one other thing – change, trumps the consistency of Tim’s products.

“There is nothing more consistent than change. If you’re not aware of the changing customer, you’re going to die,” Buist warned.

In 1981, when Tim’s started to feel competitive pressure from MMmuffins, they stopped frying Tim’s donuts and brought in the ovens, allowing for cakes, cookies and sandwiches.

“I honestly believe if that change had not been made over 20 years ago, the company would not be here today.”