Saturday, October 25, 2014

Tim Hortons: Hiding Behind A Façade of Corporate Citizenship

Tim Horton’s is an iconic Canadian brand, known for its doughnuts and signature coffee that I’ve recently learned is a top secret recipe known only by three people.  Indeed, it’s critical for Tim Horton’s to keep this intellectual property out of the hands of competitors especially given the fact that many visitors to  Canada liken the coffee to the liquid that would ring out of soaked dirty dress socks. 

This past week, I attended a presentation by the manager of sustainability at Tim Horton’s that outlined the many impressive initiatives the company pursues across social, ecological and economic dimensions.  They have a coffee partnership with coffee farmers, an aboriginal community initiative called Horizons, LEED-certified retail stores, an alternative hen housing system for 12 million sourced eggs, and millions of dollars donated to various charities including Timbits Sports.

But there were a few things that left me puzzled.

Canada’s largest fast food service chain touts the range of healthy options they provide consumers.  Yogurt, soups, sandwiches and “fresh” fruit smoothies.  An added benefit is that the smoothies are void of any fibre and protein, which we all know are two destructive ingredients to the human body.

Wait, what? 

No fibre or protein in the smoothie means that Tim Horton’s doesn’t put any fresh fruit into the blender.  Nope, why use fresh fruit when they can just use purees and juices, which slow down the pace at which consumers assimilate the sugar that fruit naturally contains.  No doubt our society is facing a major epidemic of skinniness because we are assimilating sugar too quickly.  So thank you Tim Horton’s for doing your part to slow things down and fatten us up a bit. 

So what if the Smoothies’ 30 grams of sugar is more than the sugar content of a Tim Horton’s doughnut!  In comparison to all those sugary drinks and sports drinks on the market today, Tim Horton’s smoothies are technically healthier.  I can just see the marketing slogan now, “Drink Tim Horton’s Smoothies, we only shorten your life by 15 years not 20 like leading competitor brands”, or how about, “Tim Horton’s Smoothies, not as bad as soda”.  

Then there is the yogurt.  Plain Greek yogurt has 6.5 grams of sugar per 6 ounces of yogurt while regular plain yogurt has 12 grams of sugar per 6 ounces.  Tim Horton’s yogurt has 25 grams of sugar per 6 ounces of yogurt.  To put this into perspective, a can of Coca-Cola has 19.5 grams of sugar per 6 ounce.  Or take something of similar substance to yogurt like chocolate pudding.  There are approximately 30 grams of sugar per 6 ounces of chocolate pudding.  You mean to tell me that all this time I’ve been eating yogurt and fruit when I could have been eating chocolate pudding?!?!

But nothing shows Tim Hortons “commitment” to the community than its Smile Cookie program.  At the beginning of a video clip I posted below, the caption reads: “Tim Horton’s believes it has a positive role to play in enabling communities to thrive and grow”. 

The once a year event sees franchise owners bake and sell chocolate chip cookies with icing happy faces.   100% of the proceeds go to over 500 charities. The charity chosen by the franchisee in the video is…

Wait for it…

Here it comes…

“Nutrition for Learning”. 

Later in the video, Brian Banks, Community Development Officer of Nutrition for Learning, struggles with the hypocrisy of the whole initiative when he says, “Nutrition for learning is all about enhancing the ability of every student to get a proper education by having the proper nutrition throughout the day”. 
There are comedians out there praising their own god for this sort of hypocrisy because they honestly couldn’t write anything better than this.  The video continues with: “Over 3200 students will have the proper nutrition throughout the day to make sure that they can focus on learning”. 

Are you kidding me????!!!?!?!? 

Let me put this simply:  You’re selling cookies – the same sort of products that dominate the shelves in your 4592 stores across Canada that likely have the same or similar nutritional value as your unhealthiest donuts that contribute to a national obesity epidemic – to raise money for nutritional education among children.  Do you realize how hilarious this is? 

The Smile Cookie Program is like Air Canada giving away free flights to help educate air travelers of the worst possible service experience in the airline industry.  Or AT&T or Verizon in the US or Rogers and Bell in Canada contributing a portion of their internet service fees to fund a consumer education program about how much consumers “get it up the ass” on a consistent basis from the telecommunications industry.

Here’s some advice Tim Horton’s…how about you shift the program to one where you try to sell as many cookies as possible to show the negative effects of these cookies on society as the means by which you educate children.

In other words, sell the cookies to show children that you really shouldn't eat these cookies!

Here's the video, that will surely warm your heart.

What gets me the most about Tim Horton’s is that they proclaim to be a company that delivers quality products to communities.  But do we understand the real impact that Tim Horton’s has on their communities?  They use a classic profit distribution approach to corporate citizenship where they make huge sums of money off the backs of the obese and then use part of that money to resolve any pent up guilt or stakeholder pressure to stop by contributing money to charity. 

This is no different from my post on CIBC’s Run for the Cure program where the bank claims to support cancer research yet continues to provide capital to the very companies producing or emitting the chemicals that cause cancer.   Tim Horton’s has done a great job at marketing a façade of corporate citizenship that masks their underlying business model which, unfortunately, will go down in history as one of the major contributors to Canadian obesity in the 21st century. 

I get very frustrated as a business professor when companies aim to have their pie and eat it too in the sense that they get to bathe in the profits that come from their core operations that cause harm to society yet at the same time disguise this very act through impressive marketing campaigns that show how wonderful they are to the community.

At the end of the day, I don’t mind that there are companies out there that provide consumers with unhealthy food or toxic products that leach into their bodies, or banks that loan to dirty companies.  What gets me is when trained marketers of these very companies – or more egregious the social responsibility employees in these marketing departments – create the image in the minds of consumers that they have made dramatic improvements and that they are taking sustainability and social responsibility seriously. 

That’s the problem. 

There is no doubt in my mind that when looking at the net impact companies have on society, those that are honest and transparent about who they are and what they represent, even if they produce toxic products, are better for society than those who are dishonest about who they really are.  In other words, Harvey’s doesn’t hide the fact that they are the unhealthy option but a company like Tim Horton’s, in their broad market pitch about community commitment, is dishonest about its role in society when you net out the negative effect of their products with their seemingly positive effects of the charity programs and social responsibility efforts.