Financing

Justin Bieber jolts Tim Hortons sales and turns the CEO into a ‘belieber’

The chain’s sales improved last quarter, thanks to its marketing deal with the Canadian pop star. And it all started with a social media complaint.
Tim Hortons Justin Bieber
This photo shows the old style of Tim Hortons lids. A complaint about the company's shift to a raised lid led to its partnership with Justin Bieber late last year./Photograph: Shutterstock

Tim Hortons finished 2021 on a strong note, thanks to an Instagram complaint about coffee lids.

To be sure, the complaint happened to come from Justin Bieber, the Canadian pop star and an avowed fan of the coffee and doughnut chain. But in 2019, Bieber was not a particular fan of the chain’s new coffee lids.

“These new lids are uncomfortable on the mouth, and you get very little liquid each drink,” he wrote. “It’s a damn outrage.”

That post led to a dialogue between Bieber and Tim Hortons, and that ultimately led to a marketing deal between the two in November. The collaboration included menu innovations and merchandise, including three new flavors of the chain’s Timbits—dubbed “Timbiebs”—chocolate white fudge, sour cream chocolate chip and birthday cake waffle.

The deal was a success. Same-store sales rose 11.3% in the quarter ended Dec. 31. Those Timbiebs generated more traffic than the company expected. And it made a fan out of Jose Cil, the CEO of Tim Hortons parent company Restaurant Brands International.

“I’m a belieber,” Cil said, using the moniker given to Bieber’s legion of fans. He said the partnership “was one of the more successful traffic-driving initiatives in recent memory and outperformed our internal expectations.”

Tim Hortons changed its lid from a flat lid to a more raised lid with the chain’s maple leaf logo indented on top. The raised lid includes a skirt that catches liquid.

Tims is an institution in Canada and, apparently, the change generated some controversy. “It was a shock to the Canadian system,” Cil said.

Bieber was among those who preferred the flat lids, and his Instagram post featured the results of an apparent social media poll asking Canadians if they miss those lids—70% of whom said they did. Bieber said that they need to be changed back.  

But the partnership evolved from the discussions that came out of that post. And Bieber’s complaint reflects the strong feelings Canadians have for the brand, the company’s dominant restaurant chain. “It’s organic,” Cil said, noting that Bieber is working with Tim Hortons “because he enjoys it. He’s a proud Canadian.”

The deal came at the right time for Tim Hortons, which has seen its sales come back more slowly from the pandemic than many U.S. chains because of a slower reopening north of the border. Even after the strong fourth quarter, sales remain down 2% compared with the same period from a year earlier.

But the chain has seen a recovery during some parts of the day. For instance, sales in the morning are up over 2019 levels for the first time since the outset of the pandemic, a vital measure for a chain built on its coffee.

Company executives said there were certainly other factors at work in the improvements—food sales were up 14% over 2019 levels in the quarter, which they credited to improvements in quality, such as freshly cracked eggs. And membership in the company’s Tims Rewards loyalty program increased 50%.

All these efforts led to increasing sales throughout the quarter, culminating in a December with sales up in the “single digits” compared to 2019.

“We’re confident that thoughtful and steady category innovation combined with improved core execution and unmatched digital reach will unlock a better experience for our guests and more opportunities to grow sales and owner profitability across Canada,” Cil said.

The lesson here is obvious: Don’t ignore those social media posts from big-name stars.

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