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Labatt goes on offence to win over hockey fans

NHL players are already being integrated into the Budweiser Red Light campaign.

Labatt does not have the NHL, but it is attempting to own hockey in Canadians' minds.

Two years ago, Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd. lost the biggest sports sponsorship in Canada – the National Hockey League – to its rival. Ever since, it has bet that the next best thing in its sports marketing strategy might be even better.

That plan took another step forward on Wednesday with the announcement of a marketing partnership deal between Labatt's Budweiser brand and the NHL Players' Association. Even before the announcement, the deal was already in play this past weekend, when a new Budweiser ad made its debut on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada during the game between Los Angeles and Chicago. The emotional spot features the parents of L.A. Kings player Drew Doughty talking about their pride in their son.

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Molson Coors Brewing Co. signed on as the official beer sponsor of the NHL in North America last year, in a seven-year $375-million deal, after a legal battle that saw Labatt unsuccessfully attempt to hold on to its sponsorship.

Since the end of Labatt's NHL sponsorship contract in 2011, the brewer has been fighting to keep its ties to hockey in its marketing plans. In the 2012 Super Bowl broadcast, Budweiser released an ad showing how it had organized a surprise for a recreational hockey team, with an unexpected crowd of 500 fans streaming into a local rink along with announcers, a jumbotron and all the trappings of a pro game. It leapt to more than four million views online as well. Then this year, also during the Super Bowl, Budweiser introduced its Red Lights campaign, selling goal lights to fans that could be programmed to go off when their favourite teams score goals. And in January, Labatt announced a multiyear sponsorship deal with Hockey Night in Canada. Its ads have been highly visible during CBC's hockey broadcasts ever since.

"When you're given these situations, it forces you to be very creative," said Jonathan Ritter, manager of media, sports and entertainment with Labatt. "… Our approach is really about celebrating hockey."

It is also part of a shifting business strategy for the NHL Players' Association. Since Donald Fehr took over leadership of the group in 2010, the NHLPA has been courting more marketing partners.

Last year, it partnered with BlackBerry to promote its PlayBook tablets: As part of the deal, five NHL players used the devices to record behind-the-scenes footage of their daily lives. More than two million people viewed content from the campaign, according to the association.

In 2010, the NHLPA also struck a deal with Allstate Insurance Co. of Canada, to sponsor a mentorship program with NHL players and young hockey players.

"We're slowly building our portfolio," said Colin Campbell, director of corporate partnerships with the NHLPA, adding that there are more announcements of marketing partnerships to come. "… We're just at the beginning of this process."

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While some brands choose to sponsor individual players, that kind of celebrity sponsorship is not the only way marketers can take advantage of a connection with players, Mr. Campbell said. He noted that, unlike the type of high-profile deal that ties Gatorade with Sidney Crosby for example, "there is some cost efficiency" to a deal encompassing the roughly 750 players in the NHLPA.

In addition to the Budweiser ad that aired on Saturday, players are already being integrated into the Red Light campaign. Players such as Mike Cammalleri of the Calgary Flames have already made surprise appearances at fans' doors to deliver their lights. There will be more surprise visits in the coming days, Labatt's Mr. Ritter said. In future, the brand could do other promotions such as hosting a viewing party with players and select fans, he said.

The marketing drive is important because hockey is a major volume driver of beer consumption in Canada – especially during playoff time. The power of this kind of deal is accentuated in the shadow of the lockout that shortened this season.

"Hockey fans who love hockey are feeling a bit disenfranchised," said Franke Rodriguez, president of Anomaly Canada, Budweiser's advertising agency that came up with the Flash Fans and Red Light campaigns. "It's becoming more of a business. … If we can position Budweiser with the spirit of hockey, not the business of hockey, then we win."

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