Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.
For three decades, Steve Davies has made a career out of raising heritage hockey brands from the dead.
His first foray was in the 1980s when he noticed the defunct equipment maker Hespeler had never been trademarked. He quickly snapped up the rights and brought the brand back to market in 1990, leveraging handshake endorsements with NHL stars Doug Gilmour and Joe Nieuwendyk.
Mr. Davies sold Hespeler in 1996 and stayed on to manage the brand until the early 2000s.
In 2004 came an opportunity to buy Toronto-based Winnwell Clean Hockey Inc. Mr. Davies jumped at the chance to breathe life into another Canadian heritage brand.
But this time around, the NHL has proven to be a different place, one dominated by massive brands such as Bauer and Reebok-owned CCM, each with equally massive marketing budgets.
Mr. Davies says the sort of casual endorsements he secured for Hespeler in the 1990s wouldn't happen this time around with Winnwell. "Look at the salaries of these guys, they're movie stars," he says. "It's very difficult to get any kind of one-on-one discussion with them, they're being paid so much money."
Also, the cost of putting his equipment in NHL players' hands would be crippling. Manufacturers must pay around $100,000 (U.S.) per category – sticks, helmets, skates – to get their products approved for use on the ice during games.
"It's not how good you can make a product any more, it's whether you can afford the on-ice licensing fees," says Mr. Davies. For Winnwell, which has a staff of eight and earned $8-million last year, the costs are prohibitive.
Instead the company has earmarked the $150,000 it would have given to the NHL for content marketing instead. Winnwell has produced YouTube videos geared toward newcomers to hockey, showing how to put mesh on a hockey net, lace up skates and take wrist shots. They also have made a video explaining how their proprietary equipment odour-management technology works.
For Winnwell, growth means learning to compete in the new hockey landscape.
"This is a privately held ice hockey company run by my family," Mr. Davies says. "The real challenge for us is to [convince] consumers that we know hockey."
The Challenge: How can Winnwell broaden its customer base without spending big marketing dollars?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Vijay Setlur, sports marketing instructor at York University's Schulich School of Business, Toronto
One way would be to donate equipment to hockey teams in communities that aren't well-to-do and leverage that feeling of goodwill and publicize it to get people interested in the brand. Donating it to a visible minority group that wants to play but doesn't have the funds will let him tap into the newcomers he's developing the videos for. They're not only equipping them to play the sport, they're introducing more people to it, and helping them develop loyalty toward the brand.
They could turn that into a feel-good story and build equity in their brand through storytelling, through developing content around that, something that's shareable.
Mark Harrison, founder of marketing firm T1, which has worked with sports brands Nike and the UFC, Toronto
In any business the middle ground is the worst place to be. You want to be the most dominant or you want to find a unique niche. Eighty-five per cent of the people who put on skates in North America are not playing professional hockey. That could guide Mr. Davies in focusing his marketing.
I would go into partnership with people like TeamSnap or Goalline – online applications and league-management programs where practices are booked, rink locations are included and parents go to tell coaches and team managers whether their kids are attending. If his niche is house league hockey, then he should be building partnerships with these organizations because they have access to hockey players, teams and coaches in that sector.
There's also the hockey school side of things. Kids at all levels are going to March Break camps, summer camps, etc. He could provide Winnwell to the instructors and build relationships that way.
Ann Pegoraro, director of the Institute for Sport Marketing, Laurentian University, Sudbury.
There's equity in Winnwell's heritage. Kids don't have an attachment to it yet, but if Mr. Davies were to put out a series of heritage T-shirts, for instance, people would buy them. Nostalgia gets us to spend more money. That's why teams do the throwback jerseys; it's a psychological reaction to nostalgia. He could use that to create social media content.
He could also try something more off the wall, to try to stand out. Every couple of years somebody tries to break the record for the longest hockey game, and he could be the brand that's a part of it. It blends the professional side with the community support side and has potential to go viral.
Winnwell has been supporting hockey in Canada since 1906. That's pretty fantastic, so showing how he's still supporting guys who are out there trying to break a record would be something to consider.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Connect with beginner communities
Donate products to communities that aren't well-to-do and tell their stories via custom content.
Partner with software tools that parents, coaches and minor hockey associations use.
Tap into heritage equity
Create retro clothing, experiential marketing and storytelling that taps into the brand's long heritage in Canada.
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Interviews have been edited and condensed.