O, Canada: Visualizing National Identity

Trends / Sustainability
Rebecca Rom-Frank
Sep 15, 2023
Canadian advertising often includes classic symbols of national pride, such as the maple leaf, hockey, and moose (yes, that is plural). These are fun, but our research also found opportunities for brands to visualize Canadian culture and consumer sentiment with even more nuance.
What visual symbols are distinctly Canadian?
Canada and the US are often grouped together as one region: North America. However, while there is overlap in visual depictions of topics such as business, healthcare, and indoor family scenes, Canadian brands do seek to distinguish themselves culturally when searching for visual content—and our consumer survey shows that Canadians are slightly more patriotic than Americans overall. "Hockey” is among the top 25 searches, and other distinctly Canadian symbols such as “maple leaf”, “curling”, “poutine”, and “moose” are not far behind. These symbols often appeared in the ads that aired specifically for Canadian audiences during the Superbowl as an example.1 

In fact, our research found that only 50% of visuals that Canadian brands used between July 2022 and June 2023 were also popular with American brands. Aside from flags and poppies2, differences between Canadian and American popular visuals include +94% more visuals showing cold winter weather and sports, and +46% more visuals of outdoor activities such as hiking, reflecting the colder climate and a devotion to nature in lifestyle and tourism industries. More sustainable timber frame and wooden interiors are also clearly visible, considering that logging makes up the biggest industry share of Canada’s economy.3 

After the establishment of The Day of Truth and Reconciliation in 20214, Indigenous Canadian representation remains a top diversity priority in 2023. “Indigenous” and “Indigenous Canada” continue to trend up in search, even as more generic “diversity” searches trend down, and Canadian brands used +172% more visuals of Indigenous people than American brands. Capturing some of these nuanced differences in Canadian visuals can be just as powerful as the other classic symbols.
Amidst the wildfires, where do Canadians stand on sustainability?
This year, Canada experienced its worst climate‑fueled wildfire season in history. International attention also focused on the fallout—The New York Post even ran the old South Park joke “Blame Canada” as the headline about smoke covering parts of the US.5 But within Canada, as of August, there have been over 4,100 active fires, over 200,000 people (and counting) evacuated, and over 10 million hectares burned.6 For a culture that values the outdoors, the industry and beauty its forests provide, and the Indigenous communities that have been displaced7, there is bound to be cultural, economic, and political impact.

Already, our latest survey found that the acceleration of climate disasters is ramping up Canadians’ feelings that companies need to take on responsibility. Since summer 2022, the number of Canadians who feel that entire industries should reduce their carbon footprint increased by 65%; other business values such as alternative energy, ethical and clean manufacturing practices, and using sustainable packaging also increased around 35%. But when it comes to personal actions, Canadians are less motivated than Americans to increase consumption as a solution. Canadian GDP shrank in 20228, and our survey finds that Canadians are now more worried about personal finances. As a result, Canadians are at least 30% more likely to use alternate transportation, reuse or repair items, or eliminate single‑use plastics than Americans, as these sustainable choices also save money.

Concern for the environment is already showing up in visuals popular with Canadian brands: compared to American brands, they’ve used more content related to sustainable lifestyle (+27% more), sustainable resources (+11% more), and environmental conservation (+15% more). And by comparison, popular Canadian visuals tend to bring people to the center more often, evoking a more personal and emotional response from the viewer. Our image testing found that 1 in 4 Canadians see “tree‑hugging” as an effective visual symbol of sustainability, compared to just 1 in 5 Americans. So, to visualize sustainability for the Canadian market, consider more visuals which focus on actions that bring people together, but don’t necessarily involve economic exchange: for example, people sharing vegetables from their gardens, carpooling, or appreciating Canada’s natural beauty.
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