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persuasion

For an organization that has been relatively modest in its past marketing efforts, conjuring a squad of ghost bicycles was an unusual feat.

The cinematic special effects – showing bikes without riders gliding down rainy country roads and careening through mountain terrain – were in service of a new ad campaign for Cycling Canada that launched in April. But there were larger forces at play in making that ad happen.

The unusually eye-catching campaign for Cycling was just one dividend of a project that began two years ago, when the Canadian Olympic Committee announced a $10-million investment to improve the business operations of National Sport Foundations (NSFs).

That development plan started with an evaluation of NSFs by consulting firm Deloitte, which found that many of them were lacking in an important area: branding and marketing.

"It was, for us, an opportunity we'd never had before to make people aware of our brand," said Cycling Canada CEO Greg Mathieu. The COC covered 50 to 60 per cent of the cost of the "Hop On" campaign, he added.

While the COC has stepped up its marketing game in recent years, NSFs have watched – and learned. Now they're hoping to make their own brands better known as well.

The advertising serves a few purposes: attracting people to take part in the sport, which can help fund NSFs through fees, fundraising and, of course, attracting corporate sponsorship. As the COC has learned, one way to keep corporate sponsors happy is for a sports organization to do its part marketing itself.

"If you look back, heading into the Sochi 2014 Olympics, the COC did an amazing job around marketing. They were able to secure or renew sponsorships that help draw additional funds into our system," said Mark Rubinstein, president and CEO of Alpine Canada.

Curling Canada and Swimming Canada both rebranded in the wake of the Deloitte analysis, with new more streamlined logos and visual identities.

"Our previous brand was not one that would stand up against, say, an RBC emblem that's just so iconic. Brands can now see themselves locking up with our logo, because it's concise and clear, and almost Olympic in nature," said Chris Wilson, director of marketing for Swimming Canada.

Curling changed its name from the Canadian Curling Association, and promoted its new visual identity – its first major rebranding in 25 years – by painting the rings at the Brier tournament in its new colours, red and grey.

"My perception is, more NSFs are cognizant that they need to run their sports as a business and find ways to maximize revenues," said Greg Stremlaw, CEO of Curling Canada. "Our intention is that any marketing spend is going to drive value for us. We provide marketers value, and hence our retention rate with some of our corporate clients is extensive."

The Vancouver Olympics ignited more excitement around amateur sports in Canada, Mr. Wilson of Swimming said, and the COC's work on its own brand since then has motivated other organizations.

"In raising their own brand, they're driving expectations for the rest of us," he said. "The companies that we're all out talking to – and we're all beating on the same doors – are much more savvy about sponsorship than they were 10 years ago."

Digital media have also opened up the possibilities for smaller organizations. It no longer costs $50,000 to produce and promote a video, Mr. Wilson said, and if the content is good enough, people can be convinced to share it without organizations having to pay for exposure through conventional advertising.

Sometimes, sponsors can help with that too. In April, Golf Canada launched a new campaign to invite golfers from around the country to share their stories about the sport. The result was interesting enough that its corporate partners such as Royal Bank of Canada and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. have promoted the campaign on their own social media feeds.

"If they feel like the game is healthy and the game is growing, then naturally it's something they want to be associated with," said Gavin Roth, Golf Canada's chief commercial officer, who was also head of sales for the media consortium at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.

"The biggest observation I noted coming out of that is all the national sports organizations realized it's time for us to go from being associations to commercial entities, and to capitalize on the momentum coming out of 2010," he said.

The more organizations improve at telling their stories, the more successful they can be attracting funding.

Alpine Canada has already seen some results. Late last year, it launched a series of videos featuring its athletes, showing what it's like to do high-level ski racing. The videos were promoted online and also aired on Sportsnet. Existing sponsors Audi and Mackenzie Investments helped fund the videos, as did the COC, and the storytelling initiative Alpine showed has led to discussions with a new sponsor in the outerwear and accessories category, now in the final stages.

"Like many amateur sport organizations, funding is always a challenge. It is especially a challenge in non-Olympic years," Mr. Rubinstein said. "The more effective we can be in building our brands, highlighting our accomplishments, and the ability of our athletes, the better positioned we will be to engage our partners."

That's what the COC is betting on, as well.

"The sponsorship landscape is as competitive as ever," said Derek Kent, the COC's chief marketing officer. "We want high-performance sport to be top of the list for organizations' marketing dollars. Invest in the brands, grow the brands, and that will assist with commercial success."