When Bank of Nova Scotia began developing its marketing campaign for this year's NHL season, it started with a survey of the landscape of other hockey advertising in Canada. Not surprisingly, much of it looked the same.
There are the chiaroscuro shots of National Hockey League stars preparing for greatness with heavy rope training, or attached to a harness on a skating treadmill. Children rouse themselves predawn, riding in minivans with dreams of making it to the big leagues in their heads. Viewers are reminded over and over of the heritage of hockey, and of how closely tied it is to Canadian identity. The ads always come with the strains of dramatic music in the background.
Scotiabank decided that in order to stand out, it needed to do something different.
The bank's strategy in recent years has been to use the advertising around its NHL sponsorship to remind Canadians that it also sponsors community hockey teams across the country. What if this year, it tried something that is still relatively rare in hockey advertising in Canada – a bit of humour?
But a funny thing happened on the way to the airwaves. Of the many scripts Scotiabank developed with its ad agency, Bensimon Byrne, they chose to leave the funniest ones on the table.
The shooting was helmed by U.S. director Matt Smukler, known recently for his touching, even tear-jerking commercials for Cheerios. While the Scotiabank ads feature moments of humour – such as a nerdy trombone player who has earned the nickname "wrecking ball" on the ice – they have gravitated more to an earnest, emotional tone.
"Sometimes advertisers are a little bit more dramatic and big in terms of their executions," said Clinton Braganza, Scotiabank's senior vice-president of marketing. "We use humour in a very authentic and real way. It's not a laugh-out-loud moment. It's more of a smile."
The campaign, which launches Oct. 8, proposes that there is a "fifth season" in Canada – hockey season. In one ad, a little girl at a science fair makes an impassioned speech in defence of her theory of the fifth season, which ends in emotional applause. The soaring music is a parody of film monologues, but the ad never strays too far from the sincere.
"We wanted to mine that humour, but with a bit of heart," said Joseph Bonnici, creative director at Bensimon Byrne. "… We realized that there was a very emotive side to these spots too."
In another spot, a little boy is trying to decide on what number he will wear this season. He asks his dad a series of questions, such as how old he was when he started playing, and how many games his team lost last year (answer: all of them). Eventually, he decides on the number his father wore when he was little. Gentle guitar music accentuates the sweetness.
"The entire spot being about funny wouldn't resonate with Canadians," Mr. Braganza said. "We did a lot of research and Canadians told us to keep it authentic. Charming moments are okay."
But why is it that advertisers have such a tough time not getting emotional over hockey?
With all the talk of how close it is to our hearts, how the passion and drive of its stars fire something deep within all of us, how being Canadian is equated with eating, sleeping and breathing hockey – the advertising around the sport can often feel overwrought.
But there is good reason for that. Especially for sponsors, associating a brand with a sport or an athlete is all about something known as "image transfer." When that association is done right, people will actually transfer their positive feelings about an event or person on to the brands that sponsor them.
"So all of a sudden, with the Ironman [triathlon], Gatorade was really connected with Hawaii, heat, extreme accomplishment," explained Norm O'Reilly, a sports marketing and sponsorship expert, and professor at Ohio University. "Think about Rolex and Roger Federer. They're trying to associate their brand with the images associated to that property: Roger Federer, clean, good-looking, smooth, skilled, Swiss. Perfect for Rolex."
For NHL sponsors advertising themselves in Canada, the point of making that kind of financial investment is to tie themselves to the values of the game that resonate with Canadians. Research that Prof. O'Reilly has done with marketing firm TrojanOne – where he is a senior adviser – has shown that when people connect brands to the values they care about in the causes, events or organizations the brands sponsor, those associations can affect their attitudes deeply. That matters when it comes to decisions about how they spend their money.
"At the end of the day, the target market will alter their patterns, whether it's purchase, or affinity to the brand, or intent to purchase," he said.
That means tapping into emotions works, Prof. O'Reilly said. Using too much humour could be counterproductive , in other words: If brands appear to take the subject matter too lightly, they could lose the opportunity for that emotional connection.
It's a concept that advertisers such as Scotiabank have recognized.
"Hockey holds a special place in our hearts," Mr. Braganza said. "If you think about big events, and the history … there's a lot of drama involved in the sport. It's a natural place to go."
In the race for viewers' attention, advertisers do not take hockey lightly. And it's not just NHL sponsors who want in on the sentiment. Some examples:
Nike Inc. is not an Olympic sponsor, but when it wanted to win some Canadian love in the lead-up to the Sochi Games this year, it naturally went with hockey. Accompanied by dramatic strings, its ad leaned heavily on the convention of linking hockey to Canadian identity, declaring, “We invented this game,” and “As long as there’s ice to skate on, we’re at home.”
Canada’s new hockey broadcaster did not take the summer off. Rogers Communications Inc. has been working hard to advertise its media properties as the new home of hockey. Its ads have been packed with emotional music, pictures and videos mining NHL history, slow-motion shots of fans, and plenty of aggrandizement. Hockey, Rogers says, is “a game that means everything … that defines a culture.”
A classic from years back. A strict father who always emphasized schoolwork over hockey comes to see his grandson play – and reveals to his son that he was his biggest fan all along. It was a smart move for the brand to show how new Canadians can also find a sense of home and identity in the sport.
Labatt Breweries of Canada may have lost its NHL sponsorship to rival Molson Coors, but it has been doing plenty to keep its brand connected with hockey in Canadians’ minds. During the Super Bowl in 2012, it aired an ad showing how it surprised a rec league hockey team with a mob of fans, real announcers, mascots – everything to make them feel like they were living their NHL dream. At the end, one player sits on the ice, taking it all in, smiling and crying quietly. Cue the uplifting music.