when an institution crosses over…


It’s all about the ice hockey player from the 1960s and white writing on a red background.

Driving along highways in Canada we kept seeing exit signs alerting us to where food would be available. Some had Burger King, some Starbucks, all the usual suspects were there. But one new name, seemed ever present, at every exit. A new name to us at least. Tim Hortons. What the…?

Eventually our curiosity caused us to pull over. Turns out it’s a coffee shop selling doughnuts and stuff. To the uninitiated, think of it as McDonalds without the burgers but with a load of cakes, doughnuts, scones (or biscuits as they are known) instead. No fancy coffee; no babyccino, no macchiato here, just coffee in two roasts and a few fancy drinks like French Vanilla and White hot chocolate – both seemingly 70% sugar.

Now we arrive in Toronto and these coffee houses are as common as seagulls on a cliff top. Turns out its Canada’s favourite coffee shop. Then, I discover on the BBC website, they’re coming to the UK.  Apparently named Tim Horton after a Canadian Ice Hockey player from the 1960s who co-owned it.

Many organisations have tried to take their homegrown success abroad. Some succeed, many fail. Some fail several times, like Tesco and the USA. Institutions in one country don’t necessarily translate in another.

So how does a coffee shop become an institution? How does anything?

I guess it’s about regular use, about familiarity, about an all pervasive presence? I guess when people have known something all their lives, it then becomes an institution?

So do we have institutions in human behaviour?

Is politeness an institution for example? Or generosity? Or kindness? Or maybe directness? Honesty? Maybe some cultures and some countries have behavioural institutions that others might benefit from? Covet even? The ‘have a nice day’ one hears around here would seem to be an institution with genuine desire. But would these transfer, to another country or continent? Could they?

And maybe we as individuals have behaviours which have become our institutions? Maybe we are institutionalised? Into our learned patterns of behaviour.

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