Thursday
Dec302010

Q&A: How Thinking Modern But Acting Classic Rebuilt NHL Marketing Strategy

In 2008, just a few seasons removed from its 2004-05 shutdown, the NHL initiated a bold plan in an attempt to woo not just loyal but casual and even non-hockey fans and marketers. Now, the NHL is on much firmer ice and the Winter Classic has become, as league evp-marketing Brian Jennings offers, a mecca for marketers, media and both avid and casual hockey fans.

By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted Dec. 30, 2010)



The first outdoor NHL Winter Classic, presented by Pepsi's Amp energy drink, featured the Pittsburgh Penguins against the host Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 1, 2008, at Ralph Wilson Stadium. It drew attention, but more for its odd setting and for what some NHL naysayers saw as a sense of desperation by the league to keep from slipping on the ice of its own miscalculations. But the game was literally a perfect storm for the league and NBC, not just because players and hockey fans were genuinely excited about it, but also because a heavy snowfall that covered 71,000-plus fans and players made the game look otherworldly.

Coming off the inaugural event, the NHL and NBC embraced the fact that a previously flat period on New Year's Day was now attracting marketers, viewers and media attention. "In the middle of the football season, the football playoffs and the Bowl season, everywhere I went for the next week to ten days, somebody would have something to say about it," NBC commentator and analyst Bob Costas said regarding the first Winter Classic in 2008 during a media event for the 2011 Winter Classic, which will be played at Heinz Field on Jan. 1, 2011, between the host Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals. "Seeing hockey that way, it just went beyond the importance of one game. It became a tradition in one year."

Iconic settings added to the fervor, with the second, Jan. 1, 2009, at Wrigley Field  (Detroit Red Wings vs. host Chicago Blackhawks); and the third, Jan. 1, 2010, at Fenway Park (Philadelphia Flyers vs. host Boston Bruins). In 2009, Bridgestone came in, and still remains, as title sponsor, and a growing number of league marketing partners ramped up their activation. According to Phil Pacsi, vp-marketing for Bridgestone, "[The Winter Classic] is huge. It is a crown jewel in the NHL's arsenal of events. It has quickly become the new standard for entertainment for a sports event on New Year's Day."

For the Jan. 1, 2011 outdoor Winter Classic, marketing partners will include Bridgestone, Geico, Dick's Sporting Goods, Honda, Verizon, Bud Light, Pepsi Max, McDonald's, Westin, Reebok, Cisco, US Army, Compuware and Upper Deck. Verizon and Geico are among those scheduled to break hockey-themed ads during the NBC telecast. Dick's and other marketers also were part of an NHL Winter Classic Truck Tour that traveled more than 1,400 miles spreading the word. And HBO focused its cameras on the game and star players Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin via a four-part 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic.

During a press conference in Pittsburgh on Dec. 29, Brian Jennings, evp-marketing for the NHL, talked about the growth of the Winter Classic and how the league and its marketing partners have ramped up activation behind the game.


What were the key drivers to initiating and now building the outdoor Winter Classic?
Brian Jennings: About three years ago we embarked on strategy to create big scale events and to [build] incremental behavior patterns with our fans to capture the passion and excitement that they have for the game. Having those types of big events executed flawlessly has really been at the front of our strategy the past three years. With that, it creates the marketing platforms . . .  I would categorize the Winter Classic as being the embodiment of these strategies coming full circle. It has captured the imagination of our fans, fans look forward to it. And it continues to excite and delight in every city that we've gone to. This year, the city of Pittsburgh has been an amazing host. The Pittsburgh Steelers having us here in their home stadium, as well as the Penguins. It's been a great run so far, and we have a little bit more to go to get to the end.

Has the NHL seen more consumer response at retail?
BJ: Regarding consumer products . . .  the jerseys, the hats, T-shirts, scarfs and various other products allows our fans to emotionally connect with this event. To that point, the pride and joy of Pittsburgh, Dick's Sporting Goods has really embraced the power of this event. Not only as a sponsor, but I believe it is the first time that a retailer has opened an independent outlet to capture the essence of the event. They are a great partner of ours year-round, but they have done a wonderful job with this event.

What impact has NHL marketing, and the tie-in with HBO's 24/7 series, had on the event?
BJ: The marketing campaign has been a big part of this game. The first year we captured the game's return to [its outdoor] roots. Then we went to too baseball stadiums and we wanted to make sure that we were paying our respect to the stadiums in which we were playing. The work has not only been recognized by the media but has won several awards. This year, we wanted to put Alex and Sid up on the main platform. We wanted the world to know, both avid and casual fans, that this was going to be a special game. These two players have never disappointed our fans when they are on the ice. Both Alex and Sid understood the importance of the game and gave their time to do commercial shoots. Reebok has done a global campaign with them before, so you can say that this truly is a celebration of hockey fans around the world coming together.

The NHL is using Facebook and various other outlets to expand its Winter Classic message.What are the unique aspects of this year's marketing campaign?
BJ: Taking the game outside is going to be another special moment, and we wanted to signify that. This year's campaign, as we continue to evolve with the help of Y&R, and most importantly with NBC and our broadcast partners, certainly CBC in Canada, we wanted to take it from campaigns to conversations. We wanted to take it from impressions to connections. That's really at the heart of any good marketing campaign. How do you spread it out? How do you start to take you message and connect it in new ways? We thought about our digital arsenal and what our ability is to do with Facebook, what we've done with our own NHL YouTube Channel, our digital banners online, TV, radio, the extension out to retail and in-store are all critical elements in extending the campaign to make sure that we are communicating with our fans, both avid and casual, about the special nature of this game and the high profile of this game and how it's really transcended. It is still a two-point regular season game [for the winning team], but it is an exciting game. And when you look at our organization we are always humbled by the amount of work and effort that has gone on at Heinz Field behind the scene to pull this together.

How involved have the NHL's marketing partners been?
BJ: As part of the overall strategy, we wanted to give our business partners a platform with which to align and leverage their association with the National Hockey League. That is really critically important that they have these types of pillars, these events, to get behind to align their products and services with us. Partner activation has grown exponentially since 2008. We are up 20% over last year's inventory. If you look at any business metric that you would use to evaluate how your performance is going, this has been nothing short of extraordinary. And we are looking to keep that momentum going. You will see a lot of the activation that takes place out at the Spectator Plaza, both local and national going on. That is a great signifier not only from a national perspective about getting our message out but also that local activation is hitting it front and center. The marketing department of the National Hockey League always wants to put a fan-focus on it, be the voice of the fan. So a lot of what you will see not only in the coming days but during the game itself is to see what are the types of things we can do to spark the imagination of a young boy or girl to get them excited about our players, about our game.

"We wanted to take it from campaigns to conversations, from impressions to connections. That's really at the heart of any good marketing campaign."

Regarding the merchandise, how much of the revenue actually goes to the Penguins and Capitals and how much to the league and the other teams?
BJ: From a league perspective, all of our revenues are combined. So you take all of that, less expenses for the league, and you divide it by 1-30th. Regarding specific figures, we don't give out that information.

What about specifics regarding inventory, which you said was up 20% over 2010?
BJ: From an inventory perspective, the game has been completely sold out,. NBC is  sold out as far as their commercial pods. More and more people are looking to align their brands with this game. So each year we look for new and incremental ways to do that. And also to deliver for our existing partners. Bridgestone, in the first year of their sponsorship, were able to see the power of the Winter Classic. Give them a lot of credit because they had the vision of looking ahead and saying, 'We want to sign on and be the title sponsor for the next five years because we see where this is going and we like what we see.' The companies directly involved with us and that have had an alliance with us have seen the direct impact of being involved with the Winter Classic. So whatever their products or whatever their services are, they see it as a great platform to launch either a new ad campaign, which Verizon is doing around Alexander Ovechkin, or like Reebok launching new product with Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin as primary spokesmen. So that's where those increases come from. Hopefully we are doing our job and we will be able to continue that trend [at future WInter Classic events].

Can you talk about the sales of jerseys, which bring in significant income to the league and the teams?
BJ: I believe to date Reebok has sold 38,000 [Penguins and Capitals] Winter Classic jerseys, which is right at the peak of any of the previous teams that have participated in Winter Classics. So this will be the top-selling one. The demand is such that there are no more on the shelves. Reebok is completely out, so what is still in the stores is all that is left. Pittsburgh will have the No. 1 selling Winter Classic jersey, and I think you gather that Sidney and Alex will be No. 1 and No. 2, as they are during the regular season.

What has changed the most with how the league and its marketing and media partners have worked together from the first Winter Classic in 2008 to the one in 2011?
BJ: In Buffalo, the Sabres were great partners, but we got off to a later start in marketing the game and getting the message out then we would have liked. The next year in Chicago we were able to correct that and, in a timing perspective, we were able to do more, and better, activation. In Boston, we give [the Bruins and Red Sox] really high marks in extending the game into the community. This year, with the Steelers hosting us and having a great stadium, there have been so many great benefits, from the community rink and extending the game into the community. At the end of the day, whether you are playing in a venue that holds 40,000 or a venue that holds 70,000, there are still so many more fans who don't get a chance to touch or see this. I imagine we are going to have Washington Capitals fans who are going to come into Pittsburgh and may not have tickets to the game but just want to be part of the experience. There will be some 150 events taking place at locations in [Downtown Cultural District], so this goes well beyond the game itself.

What are the options in place should there be weather not conducive to outdoor play?
BJ: Obviously, player and fan safety comes first and foremost. Ultimately, Commissioner Gary Bettman and various stake holders will make the final decision about whether or not to play. We have plans in place for all of the things that we can and do control. Regarding the weather, which we can't control, we are fortunate that we have a window with NBC to go later on [Jan. 1] to a second day [Jan. 2].

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