“It does have a significant impact,” said Mary De Paoli, chief marketing officer at Sun Life Financial Inc., which is a team sponsor for the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Vancouver Canucks. Its NHL investment is a big part of the company’s community activities every year, as it hosts “skate with” events with each of the teams and local children.
Cards and letters pour in afterwards, including one from a child using the company’s slogan, which said “Life’s brigther under the sun when you get to meet Phil Kessel.” That kind of brand imprint is priceless to a CMO. “It’s one of the ways sun life gives back to the community and raises our brand in significant ways,” she said. “Hockey does leave a big hole.”
Another league may benefit from that vacancy, however. The 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup is happening in Toronto in November, and many advertisers and sponsors are looking at expanding existing relationships with the Canadian Football League. In the coming days Sun Life will be announcing the launch of a high-profile fan event on Grey Cup Sunday, in partnership with the CFL. that “will unite tens of thousands of fans to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience with the Grey Cup,” Ms. De Paoli said.
“It’s a big investment on our part. And it’s something we may not have done if hockey was happening.”
Scotiabank is also a major Grey Cup sponsor, which Mr. Hannay considers to be good news in light of the lockout.
Still, Mr. Hannay is watching the NHL closely and says that by the late fall he will have to make a call as to whether the company makes a major shift in marketing dollars.
“Are we frustrated with the situation? Absolutely we are frustrated,” he said. “...We want hockey back.”
But like many marketers, even the frustration of a third lockout under Gary Bettman’s tenure is not enough to shake Scotiabank’s commitment to sponsoring hockey in future. That commitment was repeated by Sun Life, Boston Pizza and by Kraft Canada’s Mr. Hewitt, who was among the attendees at a meeting held by the NHL with its sponsors last week. As long as fans flock back to the NHL, marketers will feel the urge to do the same.
“We know that hockey is in the DNA of Canadians,” Ms. De Paoli said. “That’s not going to go away.”
Sponsors are not the only ones thinking about the best way to advertise during the NHL lockout. So is the NHL Players’ Association.
Last week, just a day before the league announced the cancellation of the beginning of the regular season, the NHLPA released a commercial online for its new line of hockey gear.
The ad features Canadian hockey player for the San Jose Sharks, Logan Couture, shooting pucks with an adorable young fan. In the lushly filmed spot, the two shoot at a garage door, chipping the paint gradually to form a portrait of the player.
Planning for the commercial, filmed in August, had been in the works since last fall, said Ryan Landen, the CEO of PTX Performance Products Inc., the licensee behind the hockey gear. “That being said, it’s a nice initiative for them, especially during the current lockout when public relations can get difficult,” Mr. Landen said.
The line of equipment, being sold at Wal-Mart, is designed to offer an affordable price point for kids starting out in hockey, a sport that can put a real drain on family funds. (It offers most basic items aside from helmets.)
For now, the ad is airing online only, though the Association has been talking about ways to promote it more heavily – letting players know about its launch in hopes that they will promote it on social media. It would be Wal-Mart’s decision whether to air it on television at this point, Mr. Landen said. The plan initially is to host one online only, with plans for further spots in the coming year that could air on broadcast.
“We aired this despite the situation, really because the NHLPA is concerned about ensuring that youth hockey remains accessible,” said Monica Ruffo, CEO of ad agency Lowe Roche, which did the commercial.
The garage art is real, she said. Mr. Couture and his helper shot roughly 800 pucks at the door, assisted at times by an artist pointing a laser to show them where to aim, to make the picture.
The ad strikes a positive note in the NHLPA’s public relations efforts at a delicate time for both the league and the players, Mr. Landen said.
“No matter what you do, on both sides, it can get a bit hairy.”