Building The NHLPA’s Label
June 04, 2012 | Matt Semansky | Comments
The National Hockey League Players’ Association has been on a marketing power play, teaming up with high-profile sponsors, building brand equity for its players and goodwill with fans. Could a looming work stoppage have anything to do with it?
Scott Hartnell had a hell of a 2011/12 season.
Sure, the burly Philadelphia Flyers winger made it onto the radars of casual fans during the 2010 playoffs, as his point totals and shaggy, missing-link beard both grew with each round of the team’s run to the Stanley Cup finals.
But he’d never been considered among the league’s elite players until this past year, when he popped a career-high 37 goals and played in the NHL All-Star game. A 210-pound blend of skill and toughness, Hartnell has established himself as a major on-ice force.
Statistics don’t tell the whole story of Hartnell’s emergence this season, though. In the past few months, fans have gotten to know him as a prankster, a teaser of teammates and a sweet family man.
They’ve seen him in the Flyers dressing room, jokingly comparing teammate Jody Shelley to a meatball sandwich. They’ve seen him out for lunch with his brother, his nephew and his nieces. They’ve seen him in the weight room. They know his pre-game meal consists of one-and-a-half chicken breasts and a heaping plate of pasta, topped with a mix of tomato, alfredo and marinara sauce.
They know this because Hartnell is one of the stars of the National Hockey League Players’ Association’s “Players’ Playbook” campaign, a partnership with RIM that showcases the Blackberry Playbook tablet. It’s an initiative that gives fans a glimpse of what NHL stars are like behind the scowls, helps players like Hartnell cultivate a personal brand (in his case, one might describe it as “mountain man who’ll pound you into the boards, beat you with an overtime goal and crack you up with jokes after the game”) and allows the Blackberry brand to piggyback on all the warm fuzzies generated by the fan-player bond.
More broadly, the campaign is an example of the NHLPA’s deepening commitment to marketing, a facet of business that isn’t typically a high priority at labour unions. The NHLPA certainly has no shortage of other business to attend to. Just seven years after a lockout wiped out the entire 2004/05 season, the Players’ Association and the NHL are facing another round of collective bargaining talks this summer. The players will be represented at the table by Donald Fehr, who ran Major League Baseball’s player union for more than two decades, earning a strong reputation as a respected leader and tough negotiator. Disastrous as it would be, another work stoppage is a distinct possibility.
Although he’s focused primarily on the labour side, Fehr’s influence has extended to the marketing wing of the NHLPA since he became the organization’s executive director last year. He and Colin Campbell, director of corporate sponsorships for the NHLPA—who also joined last year—have made it a priority to make players aware of opportunities to bolster their collective brand as well as the brands of marketing partners. They’ve also been more aggressive about developing programs for corporate partners, with a particular eye toward mastering the digital universe.
In other words, the NHLPA is open for business and it wants marketers to know about it.
“The marketing world has changed and evolved and digital has certainly influenced that,” says Campbell. “And our ability as players, collectively, to engage with consumers and products and services through digital programs has made us much more front and centre and much stronger in representing our partners’ marketing objectives.”
Historically, the NHLPA’s marketing efforts have been directed toward organizing player appearances at events and managing the licensing rights for the union’s logo and its members’ likenesses. Campbell, who has specialized in consumer engagement work for companies such as Nike and Nintendo in the U.S., has focused on bringing players, brands and consumers closer together through interactive, digitally based campaigns.
Campbell cites the NHLPA Players’ Playbook as a prime example. The program, launched in February, puts Blackberry Playbooks in the hands of NHL players Hartnell, Bobby Ryan (Anaheim Ducks), Joffrey Lupul (Toronto Maple Leafs), Michael Grabner (New York Islanders) and Martin Biron (New York Rangers), and asks each participant to use the tablet to shoot footage of their activities on and off the ice. This behind-the-scenes footage is then edited into short videos and posted onto the Players’ Playbook website. Consumers can watch the vignettes and also pose email questions to the players, which are answered in video form.
According to Phil Barrett, director of digital marketing for RIM, the objective of the program is to increase brand affinity for the Playbook tablet. “Blackberry has been through its struggles in the past year and this was an opportunity for us to partner with a really strong brand in Canada and key U.S. markets that we hope will increase the favourable perception of Blackberry with those users,” says Barrett.
He sees the Players’ Playbook program as a strong counter to the perception that the Blackberry product doesn’t measure up to its Apple competitor, the iPad. He believes that having recognizable players create content using the Playbook reinforces the notion that the product is cutting-edge and fun—without ramming that message down consumers’ throats.
“It’s original content you can’t get anywhere else, using our product. And our product isn’t in your face,” says Barrett.
RIM didn’t need to be convinced by an advertising or media agency, either. The program was borne out of the NHLPA’s new strategy to develop more programs in-house and take them directly to corporate partners, where concepts get fleshed out, collaboratively, into full-on campaigns.
“I think in years past, a lot of our partnerships have been driven by our corporate partner or their agency coming to us with an idea and saying, ‘Can you get some players to do X, Y or Z?’ ” says Campbell. “These programs are ones that we’ve thought of in-house.”
Barrett describes this approach as refreshing, and adds that working with the NHLPA—as opposed to the league—brings certain benefits.
“It’s a little closer to the people driving the brand,” he says. “This allows us to actually get closer to the players themselves than we would if we were working with the league.”
In a similar vein, the players feel it’s a way to show off a more human side to fans without a heavy-handed sales pitch.
“I’ve always liked the whole aspect of wanting to show the fans a different perspective from what they see every night, when it’s always so serious,” says Biron, a goaltender for the Rangers. The NHLPA has been able to put programs together that focus on the individuals—their skills, their personality, where they’re from and their community.
“All of that is a big difference from when I first started in the league.”
Biron’s involvement in the Playbook program speaks to another difference in terms of player marketing. In the past, endorsement work went almost exclusively to the league’s top statistical performers. Although superstars like Sidney Crosby will always be in high demand, the NHLPA is looking to create opportunities for a broader range of members. The Players’ Playbook participants include backup goalie Biron and four players who’ve never gotten close to leading the league.
“We always try to line up players whose personalities and personal interests coincide with the partner’s industry or service or product,” explains Campbell. “For example, if we’ve got guys who are very technically savvy and we’ve got Blackberry wanting guys to engage with their product, we’re not going to phone up guys who still use an abacus.
“It’s an interesting thing, because I think the go-to position for most corporate partners is, ‘Get us Sidney Crosby, get us Ovechkin, get us the big-name players.’ We always sit down with [corporate partners] and say, ‘Okay, before we go there, what exactly do you want to accomplish with this program or promotion or campaign?’ ”
The NHL itself still takes the lead for many joint marketing initiatives, but under Fehr and Campbell, the association is no longer simply playing a supporting role. In contrast to other pro sports operations like the National Football League—where the league itself owns the players’ marketing rights—the NHLPA has control over players’ likenesses and use in marketing programs. Marketers wishing to use three or more players in a given advertisement or campaign must also become corporate sponsors of the NHLPA (ads with two or fewer players can be arranged through players’ individual management and, if applicable, the league).
The NHLPA is working to make use of these advantages. Programs such as the Allstate All-Canadians program—in which players offer insight and advice to minor hockey participants, coaches and players about diet, training and skill development online, as well as in one-day summer camps in Calgary, Halifax and Toronto—have shown the union to be a marketing force in its own right.
John Jenner, director of marketing for Allstate Canada, says the initiative was conceived to help “Canadianize” Allstate.
“We figured that hockey, being one of the No. 1 sports in Canada and really idolized by Canadians, that this was a sporting program that would make us appear more Canadianized for Canadians, show that we’re giving back to the community and reinforce our protection mission,” says Jenner.
Increasing awareness and generating sales leads were also on the agenda for Allstate, and Jenner reports that the All-Canadians program has delivered on this front. In its first year, the initiative generated more than 150 million impressions and almost 13,000 leads, along with 27,500 Facebook likes and 1.8 million views of the program’s Facebook page.
All of this good news is overshadowed at the moment by the possibility of another labour shutdown, however. Bob Stellick, founder of the sports marketing firm Stellick Marketing Communications, wonders if the timing of the NHLPA’s increased marketing presence isn’t quite coincidental.
“Obviously with the [collective bargaining agreement] coming up, both the NHL and the NHLPA individually want to make sure that they put the shine on their brand,” says Stellick. “It’s always important, but certainly it could be even more important over the next little while.”
If the previous work stoppage is anything to go by, the players will face a tougher PR challenge than the league if next season is delayed or cancelled. It’s not uncommon to hear fans erroneously refer to the 2004/05 situation as a strike, even though it was the team owners who locked out the players.
“I think the hard part for general fans is, once your average salary is a couple million dollars a player, it’s very hard [for the players] to have the high ground,” says Stellick.
For its part, the association says its marketing operation is almost entirely separate from its activities as a labour union. “With or without a CBA in the background, our mandate is to make sure that our partners and our players work cooperatively to improve the marketing message,” says Campbell, who does concede that a work stoppage would affect the association’s marketing plans, though won’t speculate as to how.
Likewise, Fehr believes any warm feeling the players engender through their involvement in marketing initiatives can’t hurt its cause as a labour union.
“I think it’s good for the game, it’s good for [the players] own images and it reinforces the positive qualities they have,” says Fehr. “It helps, overall.”
It seems a safe bet that videos of Biron tending to his pet chickens won’t soothe fans in the event of another stoppage. But to hear the NHLPA tell it, making the players bigger, better entities in the marketing world is a worthy objective in its own right, a quest that’s more about engaging the corporate marketing world than eliciting sympathy for the union’s labour positions. The NHLPA has hung out its shingle and marketers stand to benefit.
Players like Hartnell will, too.
Endorsements: Money doesn’t always talk
Endorsing products and making paid appearances used to count for more than just beer money to NHL players. There was a time when shilling could be just as lucrative as skating for the league’s top stars.
Bob Stellick, founder of the sports marketing firm Stellick Marketing Communications, remembers one summer in particular when former Toronto Maple Leaf star Darryl Sittler hustled for extra bucks. “He was getting married, so he took every appearance he could get,” says Stellick. “He ended up making more money in appearances than he did as a Leaf.”
Not so anymore. Minimum wage for the 2011/12 NHL season was $525,000. The average salary was $2.4 million. New York Rangers centre Brad Richards led the league with a $12-million stipend.
So how do you get a guy who collects tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per game to spend his off days participating in a marketing campaign? According to Colin Campbell, director of corporate partnerships for the NHLPA, you don’t do it with money.
“It goes back to trying to line up players who have an affinity for that type of endorsement or program or campaign,” says Campbell. “You can’t pay a guy to endorse green Smarties if he doesn’t like them.”
Campbell won’t share details about how well the association and its individual players are compensated for participating in marketing programs, but Mathieu Schneider, a former NHL defenceman and current special assistant to NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, says money still matters.
“Players more and more look at themselves as a business, and there’s a very short window to capitalize on your name and your ability to play in the NHL,” says Schneider, who points out that the average player’s career is only five years long.
Top Player Salary
Avg. Time In The League
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