09/05/2013 05:53 EDT | Updated 11/05/2013 05:12 EST

What to Know Before Starting a Business in Canada

There's been an onslaught of ink surrounding Verizon's potential entry to Canada and, more recently, the cellular giant's indifference. With this in mind, I'd like to share some communications principles I've used to help American companies come to the Great White North.

It's all about me

Canadians want all the advantages they believe Americans enjoy, including access to all the best brands and the service advantages of being a customer of American companies. While Canadians are proud of our country, that doesn't mean they don't welcome American competition with open arms. Many Canadians see the influx of U.S. brands as a badge of honour -- a vote of confidence that our market matters (after years of being poor cousins to American consumers). At the same time, your competitors may play the nationalism card with the media. They know this will get some consumer sympathy and that it will give governments and regulators reason for pause. That said, on the consumer scales of justice, "consumer fairness" will outweigh "blind nationalism" every time. The No. 1 filter for consumers will be: "what's in it for me?"

Canada has a tricky and divided media landscape

American PR types will soon realize Canada has a complex media landscape. Simply put, ownership of all major media channels rest in the hands of very few companies, thanks to the fragmentation of media advertising dollars and the consolidation that followed. The good and the bad thing is, once an editorial agenda is set at the highest (usually national) level, it travels like wildfire through smaller (usually regional) outlets. Bottom line: Reversing established editorial narratives can be very difficult in any market -- but particularly in Canada.

Stick to the "why"

When launching a brand, companies are not communicating in a vacuum. The single reason they communicate is to appeal to an audience or audiences. Logically, the company needs to be clear in that appeal -- i.e. it must outline in no uncertain terms why the company uniquely fits the customer. Sometimes that's a process of describing product specs; other times it's about corporate values and actions on topics like philanthropy or social causes. In any and every case, it's about making sure the audience understands what and why you are communicating to them.

Brands must have an identifiably friendly voice

When we speak with clients about introducing a brand and driving "likeability," we often point to neuroscience studies that show the human brain has one and only one filter for judging affinity. The filter is the same whether they are assessing a family member, friend or corporate entity. In other words, people like companies that have the features of a friend. To build that friendship, a brand must have a unique and clearly identifiable voice and personality that aligns with its audiences' beliefs and points of view. Ultimately, you shouldn't just be seeking an invitation to Canada, you should be seeking an invitation into the community circles of your specific customers.

Evolution, not Revolution

Having a communications history or heritage -- i.e. already standing for something very clear with your key audiences -- is something to relish. You may find many Canadians "know" you before you get here (e.g. the vast majority of Canadians shopped at Target before it ever opened a store in Canada). On the flip side, you may find Canadians have no clue what to expect of you or why you're different. Knowing where you stand with customers will be an important first step. We find that powerful brands can evolve without ditching their strongest and best known characteristics. In fact, a new-market launch of a "known" brand is a great opportunity to layer new context onto existing relationships with consumers, media, and partners of all sorts.

We speak the same language

Canada can be a place of heavy regulation, taxes and red tape, but the fact is we're quietly proud of the security and safety that's built into our country. That doesn't mean we're not hungry for products and services available only south of the border. In fact, we're often predisposed to travelling hundreds for kilometres to get them. When companies bring their wares north of the 49th parallel, it does require a careful balance in communicating with your audience -- because we likely know more about you than you know about us. Getting to understand us better goes a long way to earn our loyalty and respect.