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Labatt strikes back against Molson with Hockey Night deal

Labatt has signed a multiyear deal to get its Budweiser brand on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada during the well-known Coach’s Corner segment with Don Cherry.


After losing a legal battle against its biggest rival for the right to be a sponsor of the National Hockey League, Labatt Breweries of Canada has struck back.

The brewer has signed a multiyear deal to get its Budweiser brand on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada during the well-known Coach's Corner segment with Don Cherry. The beer brand will also appear in two other parts of the broadcast, and as a sponsor of a new package of digital extras the network will offer on computers and mobile devices.

The deal, which begins with the NHL's opening night on Saturday, is an opportunity for Labatt to steal some of the hockey spotlight it lost last year when Molson Coors Brewing Co. struck a seven-year, $375-million deal to be the NHL's beer sponsor for North America.

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And it is the latest salvo in a long-running fight between Canada's two dominant brewers to win over thirsty fans of the national sport.

Molson had been a league sponsor before Labatt took over in 1997, but when Labatt dragged its feet in negotiations to renew that sponsorship in 2011, Molson found a way back in. Labatt fought the deal until the Ontario Court of Appeals dismissed its complaint last summer.

But while the right to league sponsorship is pricey, it does not promote itself. It takes advertising to make consumers aware of which brands are tied to major events like NHL hockey, for example, or the Olympics. For that reason, a good deal of guerrilla advertising takes place around major events by marketers attempting to muscle in on some of the goodwill associated with them, without the hefty sponsorship fees.

Labatt's deal with the CBC does not strictly qualify as guerrilla marketing – the network no longer guarantees category exclusivity to its advertisers. Hockey Night in Canada has a number of different automotive partners, for example. Molson is also an active advertiser in the game broadcasts. But when the new season starts, it will not be alone.

"There's just no better place to bring your brand to life than Saturday night with those guys," said Budweiser marketing director Kyle Norrington. "… We are, and have been, committed to hockey for a long time."

Since losing the league sponsorship, Labatt has launched advertising designed to keep the brand top of mind with Canadians as the beer of hockey. In last year's Super Bowl broadcast, for example, it aired a TV ad in which a film crew showed up with a mob of more than 500 fans at an adult recreational hockey game, brought in play-by-play announcers, and gave the beer league game a big league feel. The spot went viral; it has since netted more than 4 million views on YouTube.

"We know there are loads of ways to tap into the emotion and power of hockey," Mr. Norrington said.

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Labatt will once again have a different spot airing in Canada on the Super Bowl broadcast this year, Mr. Norrington said, though he would not specify whether it would be hockey-related.

When CBC's most recent Coach's Corner sponsorship deal with Cheetah energy drink ran its course, Labatt saw another opportunity to tap into hockey. Discussions began before the NHL lockout, and the sponsorship takes effect as the delayed season gets under way.

"Our partnership with the NHL is great, and we are very focused on trying to work with their partners," said Alan Dark, general manager with the CBC revenue group. For example, CBC would never air two competitors' ads side by side in the broadcast, he said.

For its part, Molson is keeping mum on its specific marketing plans for the return of NHL hockey. However, spokesperson Forest Kenney suggested there will be in-arena promotions by the brand to welcome fans back this weekend.

"Molson Canadian and Coors Light have an exciting seasons planned as the official beers of the NHL, and it starts with greeting guests at the door for this weekend's home openers," he said

"It's a very delicate dance between what you can do and what you can't do. But the reality is, we've got to run our business," CBC's Mr. Dark said. "… There's a lot of partners that want to be in on hockey and the NHL."

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And, he added, Mr. Cherry's love of a frosty brew makes it a natural marketing partnership.

"Don lends himself to that category. He makes it very clear that beer is his drink of choice," Mr. Dark said, laughing. "That lends very well to having a beer sponsor."

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