In honour of Women’s History Month in Canada, I wondered who the Canadian women were who built incredible brands. I found lists of successful women in many fields, such as activists, politicians, educators, scientists, lawyers, and business experts. But where were the branding queens?
It took some digging, but I found eight unique Canadian women who have built brands that are loved by many.
History hasn’t made it easy for Canadian women entrepreneurs. It wasn’t until 1918 that most women were permitted to vote at the federal level. Most provinces did not follow the federal change until 1922, except for Québec, where women couldn’t vote until 1940. And First Nations women couldn’t vote anywhere in Canada until the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1964 that women could open a bank account without obtaining a man’s signature. Ten years later, the Fair Credit Opportunity Act made it legal for women to apply for their own credit cards. Sadly, that was only 48 years ago!
However, this never stopped a Canadian woman with a dream from persevering long enough to turn it into a reality—or, in this case, a brand. Here are eight Canadian women who proved the naysayers wrong:
Anna Bissell (1846–1934)
Anna Bissell (née Sutherland) started her life in River John, a small seaside village on the north shore of Nova Scotia. Her father, William, wanted a better life for his family, so they emigrated to the United States to settle in a suburb of Green Bay, Wisconsin, called De Père, on the shores of Lake Michigan. When she turned nineteen, Anna fell in love and married a man named Melville Bissell, who whisked her off to Kalamazoo, Michigan. Together they built the household BISSELL brand. He used his engineering skills to design a mechanical carpet sweeper that was the best in the world, and she used her skills to sell it. The BISSELL sweeper’s purpose was to help make people’s lives cleaner. Anna was 42 and had four children when her husband died of pneumonia. In those days, she would have been expected to sell the business to a man or, better yet, have her oldest son, Melville junior, take over, but he was only seven at the time.
Anna was passionate about getting a sweeper into every house worldwide, even Buckingham Palace, to help people maintain that ideal of cleanliness. In addition, Anna’s oldest daughter said she had a “keen sense of humour and was endowed with common sense, a natural shrewdness, caution, and sagacity, which was properly balanced by energy and courage.” Anna persevered and became the first woman to head a registered American company as CEO. In a few years, she started realizing her dream of being in every house around the world, with sales offices in New York, Boston, London, Paris, Hamburg, and Rotterdam.
She had some luck in hiring a young man called Claude Hopkins, who used his brilliance to help advertise and market the carpet sweeper using emotional appeal during a time when rational selling was the norm. Claude Hopkins became a legend in advertising, and the BISSELL brand became synonymous with cleanliness and quality. However, what stood out was the brand’s culture based on family values and caring for customers, dealers, and employees.
She remained with the company until she passed away in 1934 at the age of 87. Today, BISSELL is one of the top five floor-care manufacturers with over a billion dollars in annual sales and managed by a Bissell—her great-grandson Mark Bissell.
Rose-Anna Vachon (1878–1948)
As a Canadian, you have almost inevitably had the pleasure at some point in your life—and hopefully, more than once—of enjoying a Jos Louis cake, a round cake covered with milk chocolate. The woman who created this perfect dessert was a farmer’s wife who became a baker after 25 years of farming and raising eleven children.
At 45, Rose-Anna decided to start a business with her husband, Joseph Arcade Vachon, by acquiring LeBlond Bakery in Sainte-Marie-de-Beauce, Québec—a small town sixty kilometres south of Québec City. A family member described her as “a woman with character” with “an iron will.”
It was 1923 when she started selling bread, but she quickly understood the need to diversify with pies, brioches, and other sweet treats. By 1927, she had hired a pastry chef and was selling a variety of cakes across Québec. After seven years of business, all her children were working in the industry. Then, in 1932, she made the perfect individual snack cake that would become the company’s signature offering, the Jos Louis, a simple red velvet sponge cake filled with vanilla creme and covered in a milk chocolate shell—the perfect indulgence that people sought during the Great Depression. Quebecers enjoy it with a Pepsi!
She was the first to sell Jos Louis cakes in a single serving in a cellophane package. The story goes that the sinful cake got its name from two of her sons, Joseph and Louis. But the real genius of calling it Jos Louis was to exploit the massive popularity of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. He was one of the world’s best-known athletes as he captured his title by defeating James Braddock to become the first black champion, an accolade he held for the next eleven years. Rose-Anna used the same naming formula in branding a white vanilla snack cake the May West. The controversial stage and movie actress Mae West was an enormous box-office sensation of the 1930s. So, while Rose-Anna’s brand names differed by one letter from their counterpart celebrities, they were immediately recognizable and memorable.
The demand for the sweet cakes forced her to acquire a more prominent location and a new factory to produce her pastries on a modern assembly line. In January 1938, at age 71, her husband Joseph-Arcade passed away. Rose-Anna continued running the business until she retired in 1944, when her four sons, Joseph, Amédée, Paul, and Benoît, continued running the business. Four years later, she passed away at the age of 70.
By 1983, over ten billion Vachon snack cakes had been consumed globally.
Elizabeth Arden (Florence Nightingale Graham) (1878/1886–1966)
Florence Nightingale (not the famous nurse) was born in the rural village of Woodbridge, Ontario (now a bedroom community of metro Toronto, Canada), on December 31, somewhere between 1878 and 1886. It seems she had a habit of stretching the truth about her age. Her first marriage certificate gave it as 1883, her 1920 passport application said 1886, and census records and a declaration by her older brother, William Pearce Graham, gave her birth year as 1881. The biography Miss Elizabeth Arden by Alfred Lewis and C. Woodworth pegged her birth year as 1878. What are eight years in the big scheme of life?
Everything Elizabeth Arden did was with intent when she built her cosmetic empire in 1910 on Fifth Avenue in New York City. She left nothing to chance. She was a gifted storyteller, especially when telling her brand story. Somewhere along the journey, her life story morphed into her brand story, including her name.
She believed every woman was beautiful, especially if they used her products. The hope for a better self was the driving force not only behind her life but for her brand, which started with a simple jar of
cleansing cream and a red door. She was the first to create and promote the “makeover,” to incorporate the company’s name into products like the Arden Skin Tonic, and to market travel-size beauty products and samples.
The book War Paint described Elizabeth as “a tough little Canadian” who could swear like a longshoreman. Cursing or not, she understood branding, the importance of quality, and customers’ needs. As a result, she had no shortage of devoted customers, including Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen Mother, Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, and Wallis Simpson.
In 1966, at (approximately) 88 and still running the business, Elizabeth Arden passed away in her sleep. Eli Lilly and Company bought the business for $38 million. Today, the Arden brand has sales of over $3 billion annually.
Rose Marie Reid (1906–1978)
A devoted Mormon all her life, Rose Marie Reid always entwined her faith into her life, brand and purpose. She was born September 12, 1906, in Cardston, Alberta, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints first settled in 1887. Her mother, a professional seamstress, taught her how to sew and draw patterns—a skill she would use for the rest of her life.
But before she found her calling, she opened a beauty salon in Oregon, Washington, in 1925, and married Gareth Rhynhart, a traveling artist, whom she divorced less than ten years later. She was 28 when she moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, to restart her life. It was there she met her next husband, Jack Cross Reid, on November 30, 1935. Over the next five years, they had three children.
Jack worked as a swimming instructor and athletic manager at a semi-private swimming pool in English Bay known as the Crystal Pool (where she had met him). Jack’s work attire was a swimsuit made of wool crepe or cotton—poor fitting, uncomfortable, and not very flattering.
Rose Marie designed a bathing suit for her husband using raincoat fabric. To make the suit a perfect fit, she incorporated shoelaces in the sides. From there, Rose Marie started designing women’s swimsuits using other elastic fabrics (generally used for girdles) with laces on the sides. Then, with continuous encouragement from her husband, at age 30, she launched Reid’s Holiday Togs, Ltd. Her first retail customer was the iconic department store Hudson’s Bay Company. Within a year, she had six bathing suit designs, 16 employees, and her first child.
Her most popular design at the time was called Skintite. She believed every woman should feel just as glamorous in a swimsuit as in an evening gown. She was the first to use inside brassieres, tummy-tuck panels, stay-down legs, and laces. She was also the first to introduce dress sizes in swimwear.
Ten years later, with three children and nearly 50 percent of the swimsuit business in Canada, “the famous swimsuit maker” divorced her husband based on infidelity and domestic violence. Just as after her first divorce, she moved—this time to Los Angeles, California, to start her American company, Rose Marie Reid, Inc. Within six months, Rose Marie had secured financial assistance from businessman Jack Kessler, and Marjorie Griswold, a buyer at high-end department store Lord & Taylor. Three years later, she was able to buy a house and successfully moved her children to America as permanent citizens.
Her ability to see things others missed allowed her to stay ahead of the competition. The only way her competitors could keep pace with her was by copying or stealing her designs. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the will or the resources to defend her intellectual property. This didn’t stop her from continuing to innovate. In 1949, she designed a 29-karat gold swimsuit that sold for $100 (over $1,087 in 2020 dollars) at Lord & Taylor’s department store on Fifth Avenue, New York.
By 1956, the Rose Marie Reid company had grown to 1,200 employees with five regional offices to service the 4,500 retail clients across America. Not only was her brand the hottest commodity, but the hottest women—the likes of Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, and Rhonda Fleming—wanted to be seen in her swimsuits. The fashion media, including Vogue, Esquire, Life, Harper’s Bazaar, California Stylist, and Sports Illustrated, were also in love with Rose Marie’s designs. Her designs were covered extensively by newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Record, and the New York Times.
By 1959, sales surpassed $14 million (over $124 million in 2020 dollars), and Rose Marie Reid swimsuits were available in over 46 countries. As the Los Angeles Examiner cutely noted, “Everything’s coming up, Roses.” She was a hot commodity on TV talk shows like the Mike Douglas Show. Even George Burns invited her on his show, but she declined. In 1960, Rose Marie International had well over $18 million in sales (over $157 million in 2020).
In the early 1960s, bikinis were the next big swimsuit trend. Rose Marie declined to play a role because of her religious beliefs. She felt women would come to their senses and return to her perspective, which we know today didn’t happen. In 1963, Rose Marie, then aged 57, felt it was the perfect time to leave the business. She sold the brand name to Jonathan Logan Company. A week before Christmas in 1978, Rose Marie Reid died at 72 from complications following surgery. Her brand name continues today on many different products.
Vickie Kerr (1947– )
I’ve never met a potato farmer who didn’t like eating potatoes. I was once at a training session in PEI with some potato farmers. When they served lunch, the buffet included mashed potatoes and gravy. Every farmer’s plate had a tower of potatoes that looked like a volcano with gravy running down the sides. So, I’m not surprised that Vickie Kerr, a potato farmer’s wife, started a business making homemade potato chips in New Lowell, Ontario, just west of Barrie. Born in Montreal in 1947, she went to Ontario to attend college and met and married her husband, Bill.
In the early 1980s, Vicki was looking to make a healthy snack for her family. The world had turned potato chips into a processed food of preservatives, additives, hydrogenated oil, and trans fats. She started with fresh potatoes (low in sugar content and high in dry matter), pure peanut oil, and a touch of sea salt. The challenge was to make the perfect hard-crunch potato chips (the technical term is hard-bite chip) using the correct type of potato, stored at the ideal temperature and humidity, cut at the exact thickness, and hand-stirred and cooked at the precise temperature. Oh, and you need a large stainless-steel kettle.
The family loved her potato chips. To supplement the family income, she began selling her premium hand-made chips at local stores. She soon couldn’t keep up with demand. At 39, she launched Miss Vickie’s chips at the 14th annual Alliston Potato Festival in 1987. No surprise she sold out at the tater festival. Why “Miss” Vickie and not “Mrs.” (as she was married and had four children) remains a mystery.
The premium-priced brand could easily have remained as a niche brand suitable only in the gourmet category. Still, as a caring mother, she wanted the brand to have an inclusive appeal based on traditional family values. As every chip bag promises, “Miss Vickie’s chips bring you the honest, simple taste of long ago.”
Her product didn’t start in a manufacturing facility or a scientific lab but in her traditional farm kitchen with her family providing immediate feedback. She was always passionate about preparing nutritious meals for her family, including healthy snacks. Her brand used authentic ingredients and was based on nostalgia for simpler times, with a simple “healthy” potato chip that came in two flavours: the Original Recipe and Sea Salt & Malt Vinegar. (Hostess would later expand to several flavours.)
In six years, the company went from personally delivering bags of chips to retailers to operating three distribution centers operating ten hours a day, four days a week in Ontario, Québec, and British Columbia delivering over 40 trucks daily! Her working style was just as simple as her promise—family first with the best quality and service possible.
The biggest challenge for Vickie was building a large enough distribution network to get her product into all retailers of potato chips, big and small, across Canada and eventually into the United States. To do this, they searched for a partner with an extensive network—a common practice in the soft drink industry. Vickie approached Hostess Frito-Lay, one of the most prominent players in the snack food industry. Hostess came back with an offer to buy the entire Miss Vickie’s Chip enterprise that was too good to refuse. On February 1, 1993, Miss Vickie’s was sold for an undisclosed amount to Hostess Frito-Lay, ultimately owned by PepsiCo.
Her husband, Bill Kerr, was killed four years later in a vehicle accident. Vickie started another business in Arizona teaching adults eager to learn English. Then in 2014, she published a cookbook, Miss Vickie’s Kitchen, in honour of her husband, who had always encouraged her to write a book. Vickie resides in Scottsdale and spends time with her many grandchildren.
Today, Miss Vickie’s Chips is one of the most successful potato chip brands in North America and worldwide.
Zita Cobb (1958– )
Turning Fogo Island, a 90 square mile rock off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, into a tourist destination brings to mind the “Pet Rock” marketing feat. Let’s ignore that thought. We need to understand Zita Cobb better, the woman who returned to her childhood to turn a rugged, windy, rocky island into a brand.
An eighth-generation Fogo Islander, Zita grew up with six brothers and a fisherman father in a house that had no running water or electricity. She left the island to pursue a business education at Ottawa’s Carleton University and then worked in the oil industry in Alberta before traveling the world. Then Zita found a job in Ottawa as CFO for a high-tech company that specialized in fibre-optic equipment. At this point, she was the third highest-paid female executive in North America. Finally, at 42, Zita cashed in her company share options and retired with a sum estimated at between $50 million and $70 million. For the next four years, she sailed around the world in her 47-foot yacht to contemplate her next move—back to Fogo Island.
She found Fogo Island a shadow of what it had been when she left over 30 years earlier. She was now 46. A New York Times article said, “She went CFO on the place.” She had a vision to help the 2,700 fiercely independent Fogo islanders find a new sustainable business model that fit their culture, history, and ecology while diversifying away from a diminishing fishery. As she said, if they wanted things to stay the same, things had to change—and they did.
Zita put on her corporate hat, and, in 2003, and with the help of her brother, Anthony, she launched the Shorefast Foundation, a registered Canadian charity. Her idea was to align the Islanders’ resources (boatbuilding, farming, cooking, fishing, singing, drinking, and general living) with market potential based on tourism and cultural opportunities. Zita’s foundation enacted several key initiatives. The first was the Fogo Island Arts Corp., which constructed six artist studios to attract world-class artists-in-residence to the island. The second was building an award-winning 29-suite Fogo Island Inn. The third was setting up the Fogo Island Workshops, where they make boats, furniture, and crafts, and Fogo Island Fish, which markets sustainably harvested fish to restaurants on the mainland.
To brand a city or island, you need an iconic emblem. Paris has the Eiffel Tower, New York the Empire State Building, Sydney the Opera House, and London, Buckingham Palace. You get the idea. There was nothing unique about a rock called Fogo Island. So, Zita built an architecturally stunning hotel, the Fogo Island Inn, to serve as the island’s identity and as a place for tourists to stay. She would make Fogo Island a tourist destination that required a flight to Gander or St. John’s Newfoundland, a drive of one to three and a half hours, a one-hour ferry ride, and another 30-minute drive to Joe Batt’s Arm. Not just any tourist but a well-heeled, sophisticated customer, who appreciated the aesthetics of a community that hasn’t changed in centuries. Fogo Island Inn, a state-of-the-art building on stilts that looks more like a big white spaceship washed up onto the beach, took Todd Saunders, a Newfoundland-born architect, several years to design and three years to build. The Fogo Island Inn was open for business on June 25, 2013.
She used her business experience, her passionate sales pitch, her extensive contact list, and her own money to build a world-class tourist destination. She rallied the islanders behind her vision of a sustainable, socially conscious business by turning a lost island into a homespun luxury experience with community-oriented hospitality. She even has a community hosting program where visitors are matched with islanders to help them get the best experience possible. No detail is missed in making a lasting memory. Zita succeeded in putting Fogo Island on the global map.
The British daily newspaper, the Telegraph, rated the Fogo Island Inn a solid 9 out of 10, and TripAdvisor was 5 out of 5 from 547 reviews. Even CBS’s 60 Minutes paid attention and reported on the peculiar island with Zita as its spokesperson.
Zita has transformed a rock into a several-thousand-dollars-a-night experience (rates from $2,575 to over $5,000 per night) with the chance of watching an iceberg float by, a pod of cavorting whales, or a wild storm to interrupt the peace or the Northern Lights to become an Instagram moment—all of which the Islanders profit from.
Today, Shorefast Foundation employs over 600 Islanders and generates over 15 percent in profits that go back into the foundation towards further community development. Meanwhile, Zita is fully vested in Fogo Island as her family name hangs on the success of her business model.
Hana Zalzal (1963– )
What happens when you take a degree in civil engineering from the University of Toronto, add an MBA from the Schulich School of Business, and bring it all together with a woman who saw a unique opportunity in the cosmetics industry? While others said she was crazy, Hana Zalzal saw a tired industry lacking innovation in product development and design, lacklustre packaging, and an uninspiring brand image with no sustainability goals. Women purchased the same cosmetics brands and colours their mothers and grandmothers had for many years. She saw an opportunity to sell an anti-glamour brand—with excellent products, no compromise, and no enhanced image of themselves. Her goal was always to empower women. She was another Anita Roddick (of The Body Shop) but more pragmatic and focused on product performance.
In her early 30s, Hana Zalzal quit her financial analyst job at Molson Brewery. Instead, she started her own boutique cosmetics company that put the consumer first with makeup that should be empowering and approachable. Her vision was to provide better, more accessible, innovative makeup products than any cosmetics company. In essence, her makeup was a servant and not a master.
She called her new brand Cargo Cosmetics because makeup is a woman’s “cargo” that should always be with her. Hana said makeup should fit a woman’s lifestyle. One of her pet peeves was how poorly designed cosmetic packaging was for travel, so she created collapsible foundation bottles, ColorCards that were eyeshadow, lip glosses you could carry in your wallet, and a blush and bronzer in one. She also had a product called OneBase, a concealer and foundation in one. These were all firsts in the marketplace and served the purpose of being more accessible, better, and more innovative.
Her first bold move was to walk into the iconic Eaton’s flagship department store in Toronto to sell her unique brand with a business plan, product samples, and colours. They bought it and launched it in their 56 stores across Canada. A few years later, however, in 1998, the giant retailer declared bankruptcy. But this didn’t stop Cargo Cosmetics, which had earned a cult-like following among professional makeup artists in Hollywood, and on fashion runways, film sets, prime-time television, and photo shoots worldwide. Celebrities and consumers loved the Cargo brand, giving it a word-of-mouth endorsement that was great for business.
Hana used her network of loyal markup artists to help develop new products and colours. As a result, Hollywood stars such as Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Camryn Manheim, Lindsay Lohan, and Debra Messing started acknowledging wearing Cargo products. Courteney Cox, famous from the sitcom Friends, agreed to design a lip colour. Other celebrities and highly regarded markup artists quickly followed the trend, and Hana established the Celebrity Charity Collection, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Children’s Miracle Network. Cargo products also became exclusive gift bags for prestigious events like the Oscars, Emmys, and Golden Globes. The brand was on fire, and sales doubled.
Cargo expanded into the United States market through Sephora, a French multinational retailer of personal care and beauty products. Then in the summer of 2012, Hana sold the business to TPR Holdings LLC, a New York City investment firm that develops, owns, and operates fragrance, beauty, and personal care brands. Today, Hana keeps busy writing—she recently published a children’s book Good Night, Human—as well as speaking to and advising other entrepreneurs and companies.
Jenny Bird (1977– )
Jenny Bird grew up in Elora, Ontario, a small town 75 to 95 minutes (depending on traffic) west of Toronto. Not just any small town. A J Casson, one of the Group of Seven painters, said Elora was “Ontario’s most beautiful village.” Why? It’s rich in history with the Elora Mill of over 175 years; natural beauty with the famous Elora Gorge Conservation area with the Grand River, Gorge Falls and limestone quarry; and a community full of artisans. As Jenny said, it was a perfect place to spread her wings and “let my imagination run wild.” She also grew up in a family of seamstresses and developed a natural interest in fashion and accessories.
However, she followed the expected path of going to college and then landed an excellent job in marketing. So, she ought to have been happy, right? But she wasn’t. She wanted something more profound, more creative, and more meaningful, with herself in control.
So, in 2008 and in her early thirties, she started designing and selling leather handbags. She started from ground zero—no experience in designing, product sourcing, manufacturing, or retailing. Instead, her passion and love of fashion were the sparks. As it turns out, designing was the easy part for Jenny. As she said, “It’s the most intuitive, effortless process that I have ever known. Each piece I design is deeply inspired and well thought-out, produced in the highest quality and sold at a fair price.”
It was handbags that started the JENNY BIRD brand, but it was jewellery that inspired her to drive the brand to success. Who was her customer? She started with herself, designing jewellery that she couldn’t find—luxurious, contemporary, and accessibly priced. Using her marketing and PR skills, she appeared on the cover of the New York Times Style Magazine, Women’s Wear Daily, and Vogue. It didn’t take long before she was labeled the “Queen of the Hoop”, thanks to her cult-like following and showing up on influential shows like Gossip Girl, Melrose Place, and The City. In 2011, Jenny’s husband, Adam, joined JENNY BIRD as president.
With all the publicity, the retail network also grew exponentially. As the money poured in, Jenny found the resources to give back as she developed products to raise funds for the Canadian Red Cross, the World Wide Fund for Nature, and the Pollinator Partnership. As time when on, celebrities continued to embrace the JENNY BIRD brand. In 2017, Taylor Swift wore several JENNY BIRD pieces in her “Look What You Made Me Do” music video, which has over 1.3 billion views!
Jenny had a talent for designing pieces of art that not only had the cool factor or creative edge but went beyond trendy to sleek sophistication that wasn’t out of reach for the average customer in price. She was always in the sweet spot in a fast-paced, ever-changing world with her calm assurance and consistent quality as she focused on details like custom hinges and clasps, so the customer didn’t have to. She also continued to attract Hollywood celebrities, stylists, and ambassadors worldwide, like Mandy Moore, Kylie Jenner, Selena Gomez, and Mindy Kaling, to name a few.
Jenny is still happily married to her husband and business partner, Adam, as they raise their son August and daughter, Georgie. JENNY BIRD is now a million-dollar business and an internationally recognized brand with over 700 retail partners in over 14 countries, with showrooms in Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, and Tokyo.
If you enjoyed this article you might enjoy my recent book Branding Queens: Discover branding secrets from twenty incredible women who built global brand dynasties.