By Barry Janoff
March 26, 2012: The National Hockey League strongly believes that its fans are the most loyal of any in sports. According to the league, all metrics are up this season, including social media participation, merchandise sales and viewership on NBC and NBC Sports.
But the NHL is on a mission to get more casual and non-hockey fans to pay attention (and spend money) during the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs, which begin April 11 and will run through mid-June. To that end, the league has put the Stanley Cup itself - arguably the best-known sports trophy in the world - into the heart of its post-season marketing and activation.
The NHL said that its new campaign, "Because It’s The Cup," represents the most "strategic and creative campaign collaboration ever among the [league], NBC Sports Group, CBC, TSN, RDS, teams and sponsors.
One spot, "Where It's Been," follows the Stanley Cup on its epic travels around the world, which have included Mario Lemieux's swimming pool, baptisms and night clubs. Another spot, "Story" follows the evolution of the Cup in stop-motion time lapse from its original bowl more than 120 years ago to its current incarnation. The lead agency is DraftFCB. Chicago.
NHL league partners also are vesting heavily in the Stanley Cup aura. Discover Financial Services is using Facebook as a landing spot for people to show why they should spend a "Day With The Stanley Cup," being supported by multi-media marketing that includes a TV spot with Phil Pritchard, one of the charged with the care and handling of the Cup.
And league partner Miller-Molson Coors is working with some 6,500 bars across the U.S. and Canada for POP signage and Stanley Cup tap handles that draw Molson Canadian and Coors Light draft. Coors Light also will have Stanley Cup images on cans available at retail.
Brian Jennings, evp-marketing for the NHL, spoke with NYSportsJournalism about the challenges and rewards facing the league as the Stanley Cup playoffs approach.
NYSportsJournalism.com: How would you assess the 2011-12 season as we near the playoffs?
Brian Jennings: In many ways this has been a remarkable season. As we are heading into the most important time of the year for us, the playoffs and the marketing of the Stanley Cup, this season has been very rewarding. Right now, from our sponsorship to digital metrics, consumer products and everything around the league is trending upward. We are bullish, and excited, about our plans and outlook for the future.
NYSJ: What are the challenges in keeping that going?
BJ: Keeping the momentum and energy behind the brand is essential, but is no small task. The marketplace, and most importantly our fans and our sponsors, have been responding positively to everything we have done. We look at the marketing calendar, and we continue to build out platforms, be it the Thanksgiving weekend with the float in the Macy's parade, the Winter Classic, the All-Star Game, looking ahead to the post-season, we have something going on almost each month for our partners to rally around and celebrate.
NYSJ: For sports fans and marketers, there is a lot happening now. Are you finding that the NHL brand is resonating with fans and consumers and that NHL marketing messages are reaching them?
BJ: Most certainly. The challenge to any marketer and just the sheer volume of messaging in the marketplace can be daunting. But we believe that we have been very successful with our approach to date. Now, looking at the 2012 playoffs, there has been a bit of a shift strategically in the sense that we are trying to socialize the Stanley Cup playoffs. All of the things we are doing in marketing behind the playoffs are trying to take advantage of the equity in the Stanley Cup itself. During focus groups we held [to get consumer and fan insights into the NHL] in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, we had maybe not an 'Aha!' moment, but one of those moments where we recognized that we had such an asset in the Stanley Cup that it would be perhaps the best gateway to welcome new fans into what we think is the best two-and-a-half months of sports competition in the world.
NYSJ: What has been the reaction of NHL marketing partners to the new post-season campaign?
BJ: There have been two moments that showed the high level of satisfaction. One was coming out of the All-Star in Ottawa when we had all of our Canadian partners in a room and I was making a presentation about our playoff plans. And this is an audience that understands hockey, reveres the game of hockey. And they embraced it. The other pretty much came when when we were making the post-season presentation to all of our partners that active heavily where for two months we are a traveling road show. And they said to us, 'We get it. We like it. We understand it.' Getting back to the ability to cut through all the other messages and to reach fans and consumers, it is not about a clever tag line. It's really about the voluminous activation that you have going on that allows you to execute and effective campaign. And when you have a level of brand consistency where your partners are using your brand material or they are talking about the Stanley Cup playoffs in a similar realm that you are, everything you do reinforces the message in the marketplace.
"It's not about a clever tag line. It's really about the voluminous activation that you have going on that allows you to execute and effective campaign."
NYSJ: What was it specifically that you found in the focus groups about what casual and non-hockey fans know about the Stanley Cup?
BJ: Some of the qualifications [for participation] were self-defined sports fans and some of it was built on actual behavior. We received some very good insights, and some things that we were very encouraged about. For the most part, the participants told us that they were open to the NHL; they don't reject the sport. But that we need to find them. They are not necessarily seek us out. Which directly addressed our association with and being strategically aligned with strong media partners. The importance of profiling and telling player stories. We also found that the Stanley Cup playoffs are clearly our biggest opportunity to attract casual fans.
NYSJ: What was it that specifically came out during the sessions that was a catalyst for the league?
BJ: I attended two of the three focus groups we had and watched video of the third. At the end of each, the facilitator asked the men and women sitting around each table, 'What is the name of the trophy that they give out at the end of the NHL season?' And almost in unison, among 14, 15 people at each session, they would respond, 'The Stanley Cup.' And not only did they know the name, but they also knew that there was a handler who takes care of and travels with the Stanley Cup, that players on each winning team got to keep the Cup for a day and went deeper into some of the history of the Cup than we could ever have imagined. It was one of those insights that leads you to say, As far as our [post-season] marketing, let's really make it about the Cup.
NYSJ: Why do you think people respond that way to the Stanley Cup?
BJ: Credit is given to the league, which all along has done a good job to make it a focal point of the NHL and a focal point of the playoffs. But it also is about the uniqueness trophy. It is iconic. I even go back to when I was on the consumer-products side, we would have it show up at trade shows. And even if there were other sports championship trophies there, people showed more interest in the Stanley Cup, lined-up to have their picture taken with it. It didn't matter where we were or what market we were in. It was hard to put your finger on it, but it has a celebrity status. One new spot really connects that, talks about where the Cup has been and reinforces that while treating it with the respect and reverence it deserves.
NYSJ: Beyond winning the NHL championship, how important is the Cup itself to players?
BJ: When you talk to athletes, one of the most coveted honors is to represent your country in the Olympics and to win a gold. But when you talk to our guys, winning the Stanley Cup is right up there with that as far as respect and pride and the sheer will to win and then hoist the Cup and skate around the rink with it. That holds true for any player who has ever laced up a pair of hockey skates. Grown men crying, realizing what they have accomplished. The sheer will to win as a team. That honor makes them a band of brothers, even if they get traded or when they retire and move on. They will always have that moment of winning and having their name alongside the names of their teammates on the Stanley Cup.
NYSJ: How significant was it for the league to replace its two-year-old 'History Will Be Made' post-season campaign with 'Because It's The Cup'?
BJ: The word 'Because' instead of 'History' was another area that led us to that insight. We felt that 'History' may have excluded too many people but that 'Because' gave us a lot of room to grow in a lot of different directions. And it gave our partners a lot of room to activate. Miller-MolsonCoors alliance with us really allows us to active in bars, on-pack, in-premise, other areas that are critical to us to reinforce this message of social relations during the Stanley Cup playoffs. This year’s campaign, perhaps more than ever, capitalizes on the social connections among fans during the Stanley Cup and the playoffs.
NYSJ: What role will local marketing featuring each team and players from each squad play in the overall campaign?
BJ: When you look at history and traditions, you typically are talking to a more heavily engaged fan, who are already invested in the property. But we wanted to look at the casual fan and see how they fit in. We looked at team rivalries as an entry point, because anyone can understand a good rivalry. The events that we put on have a social and pop-culture kind of notion to them: The Winter Classic, [the season-opening] Faceoff, Hockey Day in American or Canada, those are moments when people come together in celebration. Then when you go up the ladder, talking about players and the nuances of the game itself, you are talking about more heavily engaged fans. So we wanted to make sure that there were enough things happening in and around the playoffs to engage the casual fans and welcome them in to watch the hockey being played every night.
NYSJ: The NHL and Comcast NBC-Universal signed a ten-year deal last year, and this year NBC rebranded Versus as the NBC Sports Network. How important has that been to the league and marketing partners in getting the game and its players to core and casual fans?
BJ: When the deal was signed, [NHL] commissioner Gary Bettman called it 'the most significant U.S. media rights deal in the league's history.' We recognize that with NBC as our media partner, they are serving our fans unlike any time in the history of our sport. Every game, every night being broadcast as part of our new alliance with NBC Sports. And now there will be this frenetic pace of hockey, beginning April 11 until the conclusion of the Stanley Cup finals. When you look at the creative we have produced for local markets, highlight players on each respective team, there is a common thread that the clubs can take and customize for their broadcast marketing and for use in-arena. That is very important.
"We recognize that with NBC as our media partner, they are serving our fans unlike any time in the history of our sport."
NYSJ: In talking about players, how important is it to have Sidney Crosby, arguably the player best known to casual and non-hockey fans, healthy and back on the ice?
BJ: First and foremost, having a player of Sidney's caliber healthy and back on the ice is nothing short of a wonderful positive. It's a great development for Sidney and for our fans. He is a great player and a fiery competitor, which aligns quite nicely with this time of the hockey season. But you have to give credit to the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. Even with Sidney out, they were still winning hockey games, were still very competitive. And you look at guys like Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, who had to step up a take a larger role. They get to create more awareness for themselves and for the team.
NYSJ: How big an impact can Crosby's return have on post-season awareness among casual and non-hockey fans?
BJ: Clearly, we want the best players on the ice all the time. But I remember during the 2010 playoffs when both Sid and Alex Ovechkin [of the Washington Captials] both got knocked out of the playoffs early and people were asking, 'What's going to happen? Who will watch now?' But the momentum continued to build all the way through the Stanley Cup finals when the Chicago Blackhawks defeated Philadelphia Flyers in six games. The game is played on the ice by 22 guys and we have a competitive balance throughout the NHL that, frankly, many of the other leagues are striving for.
NYSJ: Can up-and-coming young players who can be like Sid and assume not just local but national roles as marketing spokesmen?
BJ: One of the things that the NHL wants to continue to do is make sure that many of our top players and young stars get national awareness. When you look at the emergence of Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks), Steve Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightening), Jonathan Toews (Blackhawks), Tyler Seguin (Boston Bruins), Taylor Hall (Edmonton Oilers), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Oilers). All of a sudden you look look at the impact they are having, young 21- 22-year-old players who are putting their mark on the game. Where in the past the maturation process might be three or four seasons, now they are making an impact much quicker. And that's a very good place for us to be.