Marketing Innovation – The Subtraction Tool

Marketing Innovation - The Subtraction Tool Perhaps harder than branding is re-branding.  Once the market associates your brand with a specific promise, it is difficult to get people to shift over to a newer or more updated meaning.  This is especially true for brands that have been around a long time. Take the brand of Canada, for example.  It adopted the instantly-recognizable Maple Leaf as its national flag in 1965 over contending choices such the one shown here.  Now Canada is re-positioning the brand to update its global image.   The new campaign, “Know Canada,” makes clever use of the S.I.T. advertising tool called Subtraction.

The tool is one of eight patterns embedded in most innovative commercials.  Jacob Goldenberg and his colleagues describe these simple, well-defined design structures in their book, “Cracking the Ad Code,” and provide a step-by-step approach to using them.

From PSFK: “Bruce Mau Design partnered with Studio 360 to redesign the Canadian brand that is more fitting for the modern world. A country that is more known for its maple syrup, and freezing cold weather, The ‘Know Canada’ campaign depicts the country as a place that’s more vibrant, innovative, refreshing, and a leader in global issues.  The idea is simple, and uses the two red rectangles of the Canadian flat as almost like bold quotation marks. Icons like well-known celebrities, scenic views, famous political figures, and even peanut butter, are highlighted in the middle of the two red posts.  The rebranding campaign can be rolled out as print posters, billboards, mobile apps, and even passport stamps and beer jugs.”

The iconic red maple leaf in the middle has been subtracted.  Subtracting out a familiar part of a product stirs our minds and activates the Structural Fixedness in all of us.  Structural fixedness (similar to Functional Fixedness) is the tendency of the mind to see things as an organized whole (a gestalt).  We have trouble reconciling when something obvious is missing.

The use of the Subtraction technique works well here because the campaign replaces the maple leaf with other symbols of Canada to make the mind create the linkage.Take a look:

image credit: wikipedia
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Drew BoydDrew Boyd is Assistant Professor of Marketing and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati and Executive Director of the MS-Marketing program. Follow him at and at

Drew Boyd




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