Quote EndQuote Cross-Cultural Strategy

CASE STUDY: Engaging Winnipeg’s Aboriginal Communities

Posted by Vanessa Vachet | 06.15.16


June 2016: Canada celebrates Aboriginal History Month

For June: Some surprising facts about the Aboriginal Market in Canada…


June is National Aboriginal Heritage Month, and one to be celebrated, especially this year. With the recent acknowledgement and apologies of historic wrongdoings, the Aboriginal market is poised to make some transformative shifts. Much the same as recent Canadian immigrants and refugees, Aboriginals can proudly reclaim and celebrate their cultural values, traditions and beliefs, while operating alongside the non-Aboriginal community. And with over 1.4 million people of Aboriginal origin in Canada, a population similar in size to our Chinese or South Asian communities, millions of dollars in consumer spending power can be accessed by engaging this relatively unexplored market. Saskatchewan and Manitoba, in particular, is home to our largest populations.




Our national retail chain client wanted to understand and better cater to the Aboriginal Market, especially in Winnipeg, where the Aboriginal population is sizeable.

Why Winnipeg? Here’s why:

  • More Aboriginal people live in Winnipeg than in any other major city in Canada. See Map below. 


Map of Aboriginal Populations in Canada (based on Statscan NHS survey, 2011)

Map of Aboriginal Populations in Canada (based on Statscan NHS survey, 2011)


  • Winnipeg has 72,335 Aboriginal people, which comprises 11% of the Winnipeg census metropolitan area or CMA (approx. 783,700 people)


  • And First Nations in Manitoba have a median age of 20-21 years, representing a large pool of young up-and-coming consumers.


Identifying the Problem:


Our client had multiple locations in the Winnipeg CMA and they wanted to better understand whether popular North American brands of consumer packaged goods (CPGs) appeal to Aboriginal consumers.

First, we had to identify a few key factors about this market:

1.  DEMOGRAPHICS: We had to compare Aboriginal /visible minorities in Winnipeg, their size and density by neighbourhoods

2.  BEHAVIOUR: How do Aboriginals residing in Winnipeg trend as a consumer group? What’s their lifestyle behavior?

3.  BRAND ENGAGEMENT: Understand which consumer brands have interacted with Aboriginal people and what best practices can we learn

4.  MEDIA CONSUMPTION HABITS: How do Aboriginals view and consume media and advertising? Which tactics work best?

We turned out some surprising facts in our extensive market research.


Our Findings:


magnifying glass ⇒ TERMINOLOGY:  First of all, ‘Aboriginal’ is a somewhat generic term. In Canada, it includes important cultural sub-segments such as First Nations, Métis and Inuit.


lifestyle pic ⇒ LIFESTYLE:  Aboriginal social life often centres around churches, schools, events/festivals, jobs and conferences



Isadore Charters, an Aboriginal artist and elder at SFU’s Burnaby campus

Isadore Charters, Aboriginal artist, at SFU’s Burnaby campus – Shares his craft and heartfelt story.


shopping_bags_ ⇒ SHOPPING:  This consumer segment prefers shopping conveniences such as loyalty programs, shopping at local brick and mortar stores, on-line/phone pre-orders, and even having their purchases shipped by plane to relatives in northern remote areas


food_  ⇒ FOOD PREFERENCES:  For marketers in retail, grocery, hospitality or food manufacturing sectors, we also found some surprising facts from a Health Canada/Statistics Canada study about urban Aboriginal’s food preferences and eating behaviours. 


  •  Urban Aboriginal food consumption habits are similar to mainstream, with some dietary substitutions, e.g. traditional meats, canned milk


  • Some demographic segments reported that 43% of their daily calories came from snacks and soft drinks


  • 56% were inactive during their leisure time, which sadly, was the same rate as other Canadians. However, the Aboriginal community reported a much higher obesity rate, 50% versus 23% for the rest of Canada.


cultural issues ⇒ CULTURAL ISSUES: Many Aboriginal families shared similar cultural issues, which may impact their consumer behaviour and how they interact with brands. According to a recent survey, 62% of consumers globally stated they’d like their favourite brands to play a bigger role in solving social problems. This would include historical issues that were once considered too painful to talk about.


  • In the past, due to Canada’s Residential School Programs, many Aboriginal children were removed at a young age from their families. Consequently, parents raising today’s Aboriginal youth may not be able to teach their children about their culture, language, or their roots


A Residential School Portrait - Quebec Aboriginal students and their teachers

A Residential School Portrait, 1890 – Canadian-Aboriginal students and their teachers


  • Social issues that the community feel are of great concern include: mental illness, poverty, gangs, substance abuse and family dysfunction


  • Aboriginals make up only 2% of Canada’s population, but represent 20% of Canada’s inmates, and even higher in Manitoba. Studies by the Canadian government suggest that it may be due to vast differences in Quality of Life (QOL).


media ⇒ MEDIA: When it comes to Media consumption, this segment responds well to messaging on radio, TV, magazines, newspapers, e-blasts and text messages on their mobile phones


social media pic ⇒ SOCIAL MEDIA: Preferences include texting, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube



Here’s the REALLY surprising fact:

According to surveys, 62% of Aboriginals felt that non-Aboriginal people have a negative impression of them.


Aborginal Youth Feel Underrepresented in Media and Advertising


In fact, 73% of urban Aboriginals had experienced discrimination sometime in their lives and it even extends to advertising campaigns, where urban Aboriginals don’t see themselves in ads and find that they are severely underrepresented in mainstream media.




  •  ‘Outsider’ engagement is key. Aboriginals don’t see themselves in the conversation. This segment sees itself as underrepresented in ‘outsider’ or what we call ‘mainstream’ media and advertising. A pilot campaign that spans longer than National Aboriginal Day was recommended.


  • Build trust and relationships. Align brand with Aboriginal core values. Mining, forestry and oil and gas sectors have successfully engaged the Aboriginal community and even garnered local support by aligning with Aboriginal cultural values and paying respect to their traditions. Tim Hortons, RBC and other organizations have all successfully tapped into the Aboriginal millennial market.


  • Facilitate positive social change. Act as culturally-sensitive corporate citizens and role models. Two-thirds of respondents in a global survey said that they feel businesses bear as much responsibility as governments for driving social change. 


  • Community Relations: Be an extension of their “Canadian family”. Make it easy for urban Aboriginals to find out more about your business. And be authentic. 77% want companies to be transparent and 70% of prosumers and 51% of mainstream consumers make it a point to know more about the companies that make the products and services they use.




Research is of utmost importance when marketing to any audience, including Aboriginal consumers. Before you dive into a new cultural segment, it is vital to thoroughly understand your target market.


QEQ offers extensive market research services, leveraging key cultural insights and developing actionable cross-cultural marketing strategies.


*Photos courtesy of Flickr/Corbis RF/aboriginaldevelopment.com