U.S. radio show, design firm pitch ‘Know Canada’ campaign to rebrand Canada for Americans

Steve Mertl
Daily Brew

As Americans celebrate the Fourth of July and we get back into gear after Canada Day, let's reflect on our love-hate relationship with our friends south of the border.

It extends to the times they notice us. We love it, don't we, when the last remaining superpower mentions us in some even vaguely laudatory way. But we also resent the fact that even when Americans notice, their knowledge of us is so superficial.

Enter Studio 360 and Bruce Mau Design.

Studio 360, a Peabody-winning program on WNYC New York Public Radio and Public Radio International, commissioned the New York- and Toronto-based design firm to redesign Canada's brand.

The goal of the campaign, dubbed Know Canada, is not to boost our country's image but to school Americans about how to see their northern neighbours without cliches such as Mounties and maple syrup in the way.

"In our redesign, we begin with an assertion that Americans simply don't understand Canada," they say on the Know Canada web site. "Our view is that Canada doesn't need a redesign; rather, Americans need to be educated."

The design firm, founded by Sudbury, Ont., native Bruce Mau, hit upon a simple approach: Use the red bars of Canada's iconic flag, without the maple leaf, to flank some of the things Canada should be known for but maybe isn't.

"What's nice about it is how simple it is, you don't need a lot of backstory to get it," Hunter Tura, president of Bruce Mau Design, told the National Post.

A video on the Know Canada site features the bars framing notable Canadians from Fay Wray of King Kong fame to Arcade Fire and Pam Anderson, and, yes, Stephen Harper.

[Related: Canada's international reputation slipping under Stephen Harper]

The Post reported a package of promotional materials for the campaign features the twin red bars on T-shirts, beer mugs and the tail fins of Air Canada jets. It references Canadian inventions, such as peanut butter and basketball, and suggests twin red monoliths could frame the entrances to Canadian festivals.

Tura told Studio 360 host Kurt Anderson that Bruce Mau design wants to pitch its Know Canada ideas to Canadian politicians in hopes of launching a wider campaign.

The Post noted that U.S.-based brand consulting firm FutureBrand named Canada the world's most respected country brand, thanks partly to the 2010 Winter Olympics and the award-winning "Keep Exploring" campaign commissioned by the Canadian Tourism Commission.

While the Know Canada campaign was put together at Bruce Mau's Toronto headquarters, the creative team was exclusively American.

"We did specifically want Americans working on the project," Studio 360 senior producer Leital Molad told the Post. "What we were really trying to get at with the Canada project was American ignorance and just not really knowing our neighbours."

Early Canadian reviews of the campaign have been positive, calling it bold. Vancouver-based Here and Elsewhere online magazine said it "attempts to move beyond kitsch and cliché and present a new visual language that can be used to express what it means to be Canadian.

"It's an interesting approach, and one that is significantly more hip and contemporary than our usual national spots that feature a compilation of images of moose, glaciers, rivers and bears."

But, this wouldn't be Canada without some resentful grousing.

"Truthfully, I think the thing is so intellectually lazy that it makes me angry," Gary Ludwig, a principal with Toronto-based design firm Hark Ideas, told the Post.

"There's a number of people we meet in the business world who think that branding is just a superficial gloss that you paint over an enterprise — and I think this epitomizes why people feel this way."

See what I mean about love-hate?