How ‘The Beaver’ lost its name

The story of how the Canadian magazine solved its 90-year-old branding problem

How the beaver lost its name

The Beaver is no longer, killed off on its 90th birthday. As of its April issue, the name of Canada’s second oldest magazine has been scrubbed from the masthead, replaced with Canada’s History. Though its staff says the name change is necessary to reflect its evolution—“We’ve become a multi-platform magazine,” says editor Mark Reid—the main reason was to put an end to the snickering, once and for all.

Call it death by double entendre. Rarely has the title evoked only the industrious, slick-haired rodent. The term’s other, more carnal meaning, a slang term for a specific part of the female anatomy, has been a distraction for years, cheapening this earnest, wholesome publication, clogging subscriber spam filters and ultimately hurting its bottom line. “Yes, I like beavers, the animals, just as much as anybody else,” Reid said recently.

“It’s a historic creature, it’s on our nickel, it’s a proud part of the fur trade. But in the 21st century, if you are going to rebrand your entire organization, including all that you do, ‘beaver’ is probably not going to be the word that best speaks to what you do, if you know what I mean.”

It took nearly two years, several market research studies, a direct mail campaign and The Beaver’s 24 editorial and board members to come up with the more prosaic Canada’s History. Beaver staff and board members have tossed around the idea of changing the magazine’s name since at least the late 1970s. The issue took on new urgency with the advent of spam filters and, it seems, a growing mainstream awareness of the more explicit meaning of the term. “In a study we did, women and people under 45 years of age were twice as likely not to subscribe to The Beaver because of its name,” says publisher Deborah Morrison. “It wasn’t very clear that it was a history magazine.”

The new title is a lopped-off version of “Exploring Canada’s History,” the magazine’s tag line since 1986, though Morrison said hundreds of names were considered. Among them: “Timelines” (“That was Mark’s suggestion,” said Morrison); “Maple Leaf”; “Canadian Voyageur” (“That was my favourite”); “Frostbite” (“Already taken”). In the end, Canada’s History clinched it, mostly thanks to the subtle punctuation. “We take the apostrophe very seriously,” says Morrison. “We’re not trying to tell the definitive story of Canada and impart it in everything we do.”

The Hudson’s Bay Company founded The Beaver as a monthly digest in 1920, following a countrywide naming competition. The editors filled its pages with tales of fur trapping, encounters with natives both genial and ferocious, and far-flung expeditions across the border, all peppered with odes to the greater glory of the Hudson’s Bay Company. “Canada’s prosperity may be attributed to no other influence so certainly than that of the Hudson’s Bay Company,” was a typical declaration published in June 1921.

The first issue, dated Christmas 1920, featured a breathless dispatch from the HBSS Nascopie, voyaging from Montreal into Hudson Bay. The passenger list “included the Eskimo murderer ‘Ovangwak’ and his intrepid captor Sergeant Douglas, who bore the long arm of British law into the Arctic Regions last year in his search for the man-killing ‘huskie.’ ” Conversely, a later issue printed the pulpy tale of Hudson’s Bay man Alec Macdonald and his forbidden love affair with Nekamoos, an 18-year-old Eskimo woman. (“My father wishes me to marry Was-tag-win,” said the girl gravely. “The deuce he does! You will refuse, won’t you?”)

The snickers likely began less than a decade after The Beaver came to be. “When the term was first used, it was slang for a man’s beard,” says Lise Winer, a professor at McGill’s faculty of education. “By the late 1920s, though, a ‘beaver’ was definitely a taboo item.” The term, Winer adds, is North American patois, since beavers were hunted to extinction in Europe by then.

Today, the magazine is Canada’s National History Society’s domain, along with Kayak, the kids’ magazine, the Pierre Berton Award, the HBC Grants and the Governor General’s Awards for History. “We’ve become more ambitious as a society,” says Reid. “The Beaver was becoming a branding problem.” The magazine will hang onto its domain name, even though a close approximation of it is currently for sale for $50,000. Morrison says some traditions shouldn’t be sullied. “We protect our beavers to the best extent possible,” she says, erupting into familiar giggles. “Oh, my mother’s going to hate me.”