If fans had their way, their favourite National Hockey League players would be taking to the ice, sticks in hand. Instead, Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos is standing on a frozen pond, wielding a fish.
He's part of a new ad from Nike Inc., in which players claim they don't need the trappings of official sport to keep their love of hockey going. (Mr. Stamkos uses the fish to indicate the pond is being used for hockey instead of ice-fishing, emphasizing that there is ice to be found outside of the big arenas.)
Even as optimistic reports have started to swirl around the latest talks in the NHL labour dispute, Nike is attempting to capitalize on the growing resentment by fans at yet another delayed season.
The NHL lockout is a dilemma for marketers, who not only target hockey fans in Canada, but are accustomed to using the language of hockey to appeal to every Canadian. That's tricky, however, at a time when fans are disappointed and angry.
The problem extends to sponsors, as the NHL's brand is hurting. According to a recent study by marketing consultancy Brand Finance PLC, the NHL has lost more than a quarter of its brand value, as of the first day that games were cancelled this season. The study pegged its value at $1.15-billion (U.S.), down from $1.6-billion this summer. It is likely that value has fallen further as the battle between the NHL and the Players' Association has dragged on.
Nike's is not the only advertising plan to address the impact of the dispute, though it is by far the most aggressive in its tone. Just a few days after that commercial launched, in the lead-up to the world junior hockey championship, Royal Bank of Canada began airing a gentler spot with the same message – that the lockout cannot take hockey away.
The ad promotes RBC's Play Hockey program, which supports community hockey. That was already a focus for RBC, which, like Nike, is not a league sponsor.
"Our 2012-2013 program has not really changed, we just tweaked the creative slightly to show that … for most, hockey has not stopped and it's at the community level where RBC is focused," said Andy Shibata, head of brand marketing at the bank.
It's a smart strategy for both RBC and Nike to acknowledge the negative impact of a lockout while pushing a positive message, said David Kincaid, chief executive officer of Toronto-based brand analysis firm Level5 Strategy Group, which has also concluded that the NHL brand is hurting.
"It's this wonderful two-step," he said. "They're saying, 'We know you feel this way. And we're going to make sure we stand for all the things that you still think are positive about the game.' "
The community focus is a particularly safe bet: Equipment maker Bauer has also taken this approach with its "Own the Moment" campaign; Kraft Foods Inc. has shifted its NHL sponsorship dollars to a new program, Kraft Hockey Goes On, to support hockey volunteers; and Sport Chek released a video focusing on its support of minor-league players.
Even if the season resumes, as is now expected, Mr. Kincaid, a former marketer at Labatt, believes it would be a mistake to abandon that type of message. If the conflict is resolved, he said, sponsors will need to tread carefully in resuming their marketing around NHL hockey.
"The worst thing they could do is pretend it's business as usual," he said.
During the cancelled 2004-2005 season, Molson Coors Brewing Co. addressed the lockout with an ad featuring hockey fans singing the Culture Club hit Do You Really Want to Hurt Me. The following season, when hockey resumed, it launched a sequel with a celebratory chorus of What a Feeling.
And for Nike, the defiant commercial by ad agency Wieden + Kennedy is just one more instalment in a long-running marketing approach. It has dealt with labour disputes head-on in the past. In 2011, during the National Basketball Association lockout, Nike ran an ad featuring players cradling a basketball on the subway and playing on courts in college arenas and in neighbourhood parks. The message: "Basketball never stops." During the 1998 NBA lockout, the company launched a series of spots with celebrities Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Chan and Spike Lee cheering on ball games in a driveway and a school gymnasium, and even a Pop-A-Shot basketball game at a bar in their desperation as fans. The tagline: "Start the season. Hurry."
But while he enjoys the most recent Nike ad, Brian Cooper, chief executive officer of S&E Sponsorship Group, which counsels companies on sports sponsorships, believes it is risky. That's because it can be hard to strike the right tone when dealing with a negative situation, and whatever sympathy it creates among fans will be forgotten once the dispute is done.
"It's a short-term gain, compared to a long-term strategy of utilizing the NHL shield," he said. "You're trying to capitalize on the general sentiment. If you get it wrong, or it returns the next week, or one of those parties falls out of favour, it's just generally risky. You're capitalizing on a negative. Some people do it right, but it's tricky."