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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews celebrates a first period goal with teammate William Nylander during NHL hockey action in Ottawa on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews celebrates a first period goal with teammate William Nylander during NHL hockey action in Ottawa on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The Auston Matthews factor: The power of first impressions Add to ...

Expectations were high for Auston Matthews, and that was before the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie scored four goals in his first NHL game.

Even casual hockey fans had heard stories about the talent and potential of the American-born Matthews before the Leafs made him the first overall pick in the 2016 National Hockey League draft. The last time the Leafs picked first over all, they selected the legendary Wendel Clark, so to say that fans are pinning their hopes for a long-awaited turnaround on the 19-year-old Matthews would be something of an understatement.

In Leafland, there is plenty of reason for optimism. Over the past few years, management has brought in Hall of Famers Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello to run the team, and hired star free-agent coach Mike Babcock to begin to shape a roster that is long on young talent and potential.

For the Leafs, a team celebrating its centennial season this year, Matthews et al couldn’t have arrived at a better time, as the organization looks to repair a brand that has faced its difficulties over the course of a 50-year Stanley Cup drought.

Without question, Matthews was the Leafs’ most anticipated prospect. On the night of his record-setting first game, Matthews became the No. 1 trending topic worldwide on Twitter, with fans and fellow NHL players expressing their awe and excitement at the rookie’s outstanding performance. And not only did Matthews make NHL history, he lifted the spirits of an entire organization.

Brands were quick to jump in on the action. Tim Hortons congratulated the newest Leaf superstar by posting a photo on Instagram featuring four donuts piled high on a hockey stick that read: “Here’s hoping for another unFOURgettable performance from the Maple Leafs star rookie tonight.” The need to refresh a brand and create renewed excitement is a challenge that many companies face. New companies enter the market, often bringing fresh talent and an entirely new approach to the industry. They shake things up and customer attention starts to shift away from your brand.

So what can companies do to regain momentum?

Create excitement for the future

At just 19 years of age, Auston Matthews is set to play a large role for the Leafs, both on and off the ice. It could be argued the Leafs have never had a prospect that comes with this much built-in excitement.

Excitement for your brand comes with customers believing in the future of your company, and strong new additions play a huge role in making that happen.

The marketplace and competition are constantly changing. In order to stay at the forefront brands need to make strategic decisions and sometimes – like the Toronto Maple Leafs – they need to pull the ripcord and orchestrate a complete reinvention.

Take Canadian retailer Chapters Indigo, a company that built its brand around selling books. When online content and e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle rose to popularity, the company saw sales plummet. The brand knew it had to reinvent itself and so management set out on a mission to create a retailer for the digital age. And the strategy is paying off.

After working tirelessly, it acquired the right products to round out its new lifestyle retail shop, bringing people merchandise, exclusive product lines, and of course, books. The result? Lengthy lineups outside of its flagship locations for product launches, reflective in its 11 per cent revenue increase in 2016. Though people doubted whether Indigo could move beyond selling books, its cultural department store strategy is proving effective.

First impressions count

Expectations for a first-overall draft pick are always high. And with Toronto being the hockey-crazed city it is, millions of viewers are tuning in to see how Matthews will perform. So far, he’s living up to the hype. While Leafs’ management is taking every opportunity to develop Matthews properly, they were ready to throw him into the deep end, lining him up against veteran centremen to see what the NHL is really like.

I always tell my clients that they only have one chance to make a strong first impression.

For brands undergoing a refresh, whether to reach a new target market or combat slumping sales, it’s imperative your first debut is a success.

Continue the momentum

Given the historic debut of Matthews, the Leafs have a massive opportunity to keep the momentum going and look for creative ways to sustain fan engagement and brand equity for the entire season.

Once you’ve made your splash in the marketplace, brands need to continuously find ways to innovate and disrupt. When you get too comfortable resting on the laurels of your previous success is when you start to fall behind.

In the end, the Leafs’ brand will depend on the team’s on-ice performance. But while Matthews and his young teammates develop, the Leafs brand will enjoy a boost from a fan base that is hopeful, optimistic, and looking forward to a bright future.

Mia Pearson is co-founder of North Strategic, Canada’s fastest-growing social and public relations agency, and Notch Video, the first video content community and online marketplace in the country.

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Follow on Twitter: @miapearson

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