After 113 acrimonious days, the National Hockey League lockout is effectively over. For marketers, the work is just beginning.
As the NHL labour dispute chipped away at the season and angered fans, the league was also doing damage control with its biggest sponsors, holding meetings and sending information about the progress of the talks. But when it came to the final, ultrasensitive negotiations in recent days, sponsors were mostly in the dark. Now that there's a tentative agreement to end the lockout, marketers are evaluating their plans for the stunted season.
At least some of the damage will be irreversible. Kraft Foods Inc. was already forced to cancel its popular Hockeyville promotion. It brought in a new partnership this year with TSN called Kraft Hockey Goes On, which will reward hockey volunteers across the country – but rather than being a placeholder, Kraft Canada is now looking at the program as a test for where its marketing dollars could flow in the future.
"If it's successful, we're going to have to take a hard look at it," said Kraft vice-president of marketing, Jack Hewitt. "What it comes down to is, 'what is the value equation that the NHL provides?' "
With the return of the season, Kraft will be advertising on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada – though without the Hockeyville promotion, there will mostly be standard brand ads, not ones that are hockey-related.
The priority will be to promote Hockey Goes On, to spend money on consumer research to find out how consumers feel about the NHL and how to approach them and, once the season is over, to compare the results of the new promotion with Hockeyville. If the replacement program is successful, it will determine where Kraft invests in the future.
"We'll put the numbers side by side," Mr. Hewitt said.
There are two years left in Kraft's sponsorship agreement with the NHL. While Mr. Hewitt said the company is a committed partner, and would not specify whether Kraft would consider not renewing, he also pointed out that the league had recently raised its sponsorship costs and that the current dispute calls into question what value marketers get in return for the money spent.
The return of Hockeyville "depends on what the league can offer us," said Kirstine Stewart, CBC's executive vice-president of English services.
Many brands redirected their money into other sports entirely – the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup, for example, got a boost from marketers looking to reach sports fans. Those included Molson Coors, which is a league sponsor in both the United States and Canada for all three of its major brands – Canadian, Molson Export and Coors Light. Now the company is hauling out the NHL-branded beer merchandise that has been gathering dust, waiting for promotions that were put on hold.
"We were really hoping that the season would get back on," said Ferg Devins, chief corporate affairs officer at Molson Coors Canada. "We're toasting that."
Its in-bar promotions and other programs tailored around hockey are ready to go – as is a TV ad campaign that will be on air as soon as the first puck is dropped.
During the last lockout, Molson garnered attention with a cheeky campaign featuring forlorn hockey fans singing "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," in reference to the disruption. When hockey returned the next season, in 2005, it followed up with a celebratory commercial. This time around, Molson chose not to directly reference the lockout in its ads. While Mr. Devins was mum on the new campaign, he said it will not specifically comment on hockey's return or the delayed season.
"It's not for us to drive that conversation," he said. In 2004 and 2005, social media were not a factor, and so Molson's advertising was much more topical. This time, fans have taken to the brands' Facebook pages to discuss their disappointment at the lack of hockey – even sharing links to those old ads on YouTube – and the company has preferred to stay out of the fray. The company is now focused on getting back to the game.
Has the NHL brand been damaged? "Without a doubt," said Brian Cooper, president of S&E Sponsorship Group, whose roster of clients includes NHL partner Scotiabank. ". . . They need to remind the fans of NHL the sport, of the fast-paced games on ice, rather than the corporate entity that was in negotiations for months."
Marketers must proceed cautiously, said David Kincaid, president of Toronto-based Level5 Strategy Group, which released a study showing that the NHL brand has taken a major hit.
"Marketers have to be respectful of how the fan is feeling," said Mr. Kincaid, a former marketer at Labatt during the time when the company was an NHL sponsor. His first move now would be rewards-based programs such as giveaways and other programs that put the fan experience ahead of pushing an ad message that could anger already resentful consumers. Mr. Cooper also suggested that the league needs to give fans as much access to games as they can to restore goodwill. That could mean free exhibition games, ticket giveaways, and even subsidizing the cost – perhaps entirely – of the NHL Center Ice cable package.
"There's no doubt that hockey is alive in Canada and is a cultural icon. But there has been damage to the NHL brand," said Gord Hendren, whose firm Charlton Strategic Research Inc. has conducted brand research for several of the league's sponsors.
Sunday's contract affords sponsors eight to 10 seasons of certainty, Mr. Cooper said, putting brands at ease. Beyond that, he said, "hopefully we don't have to do this again."
In the lacuna of NHL hockey, many sponsors have redoubled their advertising that focuses on corporate support of community hockey. This has been a pillar of Bank of Nova Scotia's ads in recent seasons, as well as during the lockout. Now that hockey is back, Scotia's ad spending will be redirected back to hockey games, but the company has no plans to change its ads – it will continue with the community message, where consumer goodwill is not in question.
"We'll continue to tell our community hockey story," said Duncan Hannay, head of marketing at Scotiabank. But while the bank does not plan on shifting to a more NHL-focused messaging plan, he said everyone at the company is excited and relieved to have it back.
"There's nothing like an NHL hockey game to tell our hockey story," he said. "…Yes, fans are smarting. But we're excited … We're looking forward to working with [the league] to restore hockey to its former glory."