Just four months ago, as the National Hockey League weathered the tail end of a messy 100-day lockout, social media experts and brand specialists predicted the stalemate would lead to ‘alarming’ damage to the NHL brand .
Fans also appeared to have lost faith in the league, as posts on the official Toronto Maple Leafs’ Facebook page were flamed by thousands of comments and the official NHL Twitter account was ridiculed and mocked. It seemed that the once-beloved NHL had lost its lustre.
Fast forward to the start of the 2013 playoff season and it’s clear the NHL has not only survived the onslaught of bad publicity and frustrated fans, but its brand is stronger than ever. Television ratings are up both in Canada and nationally in the United States. Many of the biggest markets – including Toronto, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Boston – boast rating increases of between 14 per cent and 88 per cent.
It didn’t take long for the NHL to get back into fans’ good graces.
Even after the first month of post-lockout play, 23 out of the 30 NHL teams were posting better attendance numbers than the previous year. So how did social media get this one so wrong? And how did the NHL bounce back?
Let’s start with some key characteristics of social media. Because users can share views and air frustrations in real-time, social platforms often act as barometers for common sentiment. The most notable example of this comes in the form of the ubiquitous ‘Trends’ on Twitter, a feature that allows us to gauge what people are talking about and where.
Despite this ability to capture immediate feelings and reactions, social media is not necessarily an accurate predictor of long-term brand value. Sometimes the signs are all wrong. Sometimes a dramatic backlash on social media fizzles into a great big nothing. Few cases prove this point better than the current NHL season.
The other factor to consider is the nature of the brand itself. Comprised of organizational values and commonly held perceptions, brands can take years of committed engagement to nurture and articulate.
A strong brand can withstand a certain amount of negative publicity. But a brand entrenched into consumers’ DNA – such as the NHL – can withstand months of seemingly irreparable public damage.
Therefore, while immediate and short-term nature of social media activity can be an effective means to communicate brand messages, quality and long-term engagement remains the best way to craft and sustain brand value.
Even as major sporting milestones play out on social media channels – the NHL lockout, the Leafs’ return to the playoffs after nine years and NBA player Jason Collins as the first major league professional athlete to announce he is gay – we should keep in mind that initial reactions don’t always indicate eventual outcomes.
For those companies engaging in social media, it’s important to remember that brands aren’t built overnight – they are carefully (and often slowly) established.
It’s also important to remember that social media trends can be misleading, so it’s wise not to bet the future on current buzz and discussion. Know what you stand for and stay the course – a single social media trend is rarely make-or-break. As the case of the NHL reminds us, no matter how hostile the social media climate, brands built on passion can often weather the storm.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Mia Pearson is the co-founder of North Strategic. She has more than two decades of experience in creating and growing communications agencies, and her experience spans many sectors, including financial, technology, consumer and lifestyle.