Loblaw Cos. Ltd. is among the first in what is sure to be a parade of marketers attempting to latch on to the fanfare around the 150th anniversary of Confederation this year.

On Sunday during the National Hockey League’s Centennial Classic game, Loblaw bought out an entire commercial break on Sportsnet after the first period, to show a two-and-a-half-minute ad. The video, which the retailer will be promoting heavily on social media, tells the story of a group of neighbours from different backgrounds who come together for an impromptu meal in the hallway between their apartments.

It’s also a departure in tone for Loblaw’s advertising, which is for the first time delving into a trend of emotional stories that have increasingly taken the place of traditional marketing messages. The message of the ad – which was created by the company’s ad agency, John St. – is about unity and community-building through the vehicle of food, and Loblaw wants its President’s Choice brand to be at the centre of that idea.

While Loblaw is not abandoning the “Crave More” advertising campaign that it launched more than two years ago, it is experimenting with a larger storytelling approach that uses sentiment to create an attachment to the brand. During Canada’s sesquicentennial, consumers should expect to see a lot more of this from advertisers.

“Creating what we call film versus a commercial; it’s definitely a first time doing this. The 150th year for Canada is a momentous occasion. It really felt like the significance of the occasion required a different way in,” Loblaw’s senior vice-president of marketing, Uwe Stueckmann, said in an interview. “We felt it was important to do something that isn’t about trying to sell a product, that isn’t about trying to sell anything, really. It’s more about creating this movement of getting Canadians to eat together.”

Royal Bank of Canada is another advertiser that has already jumped on the upcoming celebrations: in October, it launched a campaign called “#Make150Count,” asking people aged 16 to 25 to describe how they would use $150 toward ideas to “help communities prosper.”

Canadian identity is an emotional tool that many advertisers already wield. This year’s anniversary is likely to ramp up the national symbolism in ads as an easy way to connect with people. However, there is a need to handle it carefully: at Loblaw, for example, there were lengthy discussions about how to incorporate the anniversary without taking an excessively “flag-waving” approach that might not be appropriate for the brand or appreciated by customers.

The characters in the ad are deliberately portrayed as coming from different backgrounds, for example. “We want to make sure that we appropriately represent and showcase the diversity of our country. That’s what makes [Canada] special and we want to make sure that is reflected in what we show on screen,” Mr. Stueckmann said.

Through the course of the campaign, which will run through Canada Day this year, Loblaw will hold a contest under the theme of eating together, and will also be using social media to ask Canadians to talk about their own culinary influences and how they are informed by a diversity of cultural backgrounds. The ad, which is too long to run regularly on television, may show occasionally during big TV events, and will be promoted online.

In recent years, Loblaw has undergone a major shift in its marketing to attempt to appeal to a growing foodie culture. While heartstring-tugging has not yet been part of that, Mr. Stueckmann said the brand has introduced more ad content that incorporates a kind of storytelling, such as videos that showcase the company’s food development teams travelling around the world to find product ideas and learn about food.

“There’s been more of that; content that tells the story behind the product rather than the product itself,” Mr. Stueckmann said. “The world of interrupting people with content they don’t want to watch – with non-entertaining advertising – is increasingly challenged as consumers have far more control over the content they do consume. he onus is on us as marketers to create content people want to watch. it doesn’t necessarily mean emotive content; it could be funny or interesting in other ways.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Jan. 01, 2017 4:24PM EST
Last updated Sunday, Jan. 01, 2017 6:25PM EST