Canadiens work on sponsorship play

It is to pro hockey what Coca-Cola is to soft drinks. What Tim Hortons is to doughnuts....

It is to pro hockey what Coca-Cola is to soft drinks. What Tim Hortons is to doughnuts.

The Montreal Canadiens hockey club is one of those rare creatures – a sports franchise whose brand name and reputation are familiar even to those who rarely follow the game.

Working on a property like this is a marketer’s dream. But as Pierre Ladouceur has discovered, it’s a job that brings serious challenges as well.

Ladouceur joined the Canadiens as vice-president of marketing and sales in May. Before that, the Hull, Que. native (and lifelong Habs fan) spent 15 years with the McDonald’s organization – 11 of those as marketing director in Quebec, and the last four as vice-president of marketing for Southern Europe.

‘These are two great brands – McDonald’s and the Montreal Canadiens. It can’t get much better than that,’ Ladouceur says. ‘You have such a high awareness and a strong appreciation. There are so many business possibilities surrounding these brands.’

Great brands, however, need careful cultivation – and that’s Ladouceur’s mission.

‘We have such a high awareness of the [Canadiens] brand that now we have to work on maturing the brand, protecting the brand. Our real priority [has been] making a good analysis of the brand: Where are we coming from, and where are we going?’

It’s a pertinent question, given the club’s fortunes in recent years.

The Montreal Canadiens are considered one of North America’s greatest professional sports dynasties, having captured the Stanley Cup a record 24 times.

The team’s last National Hockey League championship, however, was seven years ago – an eternity in the eyes of Montreal’s devout and unforgiving hockey fans.

The skewed economics of the NHL – which put Canadian franchises at a distinct disadvantage – have made it difficult for the Habs to attract top-flight talent, which in turn has limited the club’s ability to compete. The Canadiens have missed the playoffs entirely for the past two years, and posted losses of $5 million to $7 million in both of those seasons.

For corporate owner Molson Canada, the franchise has become something of a drag on profits. In September of last year, the brewer announced plans to unload the hockey club’s home arena, the $230-million Molson Centre, as part of an overall effort to curb its involvement in sports and entertainment, and focus on its core business. And this past June, Molson put the team itself (valued by Forbes magazine at US$175 million) on the block as well.

All of this has taken a certain toll on the Canadiens’ image.

‘Obviously, when everything is going right, things are easier,’ Ladouceur says. ‘But we are constantly working on the brand. I don’t know of any brand that can just sit there. It’s like having a bank of reputation. If you increase prices or start losing, you are withdrawing from that bank account.’

To ensure that Montrealers stay loyal to the brand, Ladouceur says, the franchise must devote itself to ‘making people proud to be a Canadiens fan. Whether you’re the hotdog vendor or the goaltender on the ice, everything should be done to make our fans proud.’

The key to this, he says, will be making the team and its players more accessible to fans.

In September, for example, the Canadiens opened their pre-season training camp to the general public – ‘a small but very concrete gesture’ of the team’s renewed commitment to its supporters, he says. The Habs also conducted a portion of the camp in Quebec City, in an effort to strengthen the fan base outside the Montreal area.

In general, Ladouceur says, fans can expect to see players more involved at the community level, meeting people and signing autographs at events.

‘Fans are the ones you have to privilege the most,’ he says. ‘They’re paying for the tickets to see the games, and so they get the most consideration… Who owns the Canadiens if not the fans? It’s their team.’

To heighten the experience at the arena, the team has set up a special entertainment tent at the Molson Centre for the first eight home games of the season. The attractions include video and virtual reality games, live radio broadcasts and autograph signings.

In addition, Coca-Cola is sponsoring matches at intermission between local minor hockey teams.

‘These are all things we’ve never done before,’ Ladouceur says. ‘They may not increase sales, but they’ll enhance our brand image.’

The Canadiens rank fifth in the league in paid attendance. According to Ladouceur, last season’s numbers were down slightly over the previous year. But he projects a modest increase in season-ticket holders for the 2000-2001 campaign, from 13,450 to 13,700, and significant growth in the area of group sales.

As for corporate sponsorship, Ladouceur says the Canadiens are already first among NHL teams. The goal now, he says, is to find ways of tailoring sponsorship packages more closely to the needs of individual advertisers.

‘Our sponsors have been with us a long time and have grown with us. But their needs have changed from just getting exposure for their brand to ‘How can I tie in with the team and make more sales?’ We have to ensure that what advertisers do here will be more coherent, and that it fits with hockey and with the Montreal Canadiens.’

Also in this report:

- Forum reborn as entertainment venue: Venerable old home of the Habs will be transformed into state-of-the-art complex p.B18

- Logos in space: Sponsorship of the cash-starved MIR space station could allow blue-chip clients to launch their brands into orbit p.B20

- Bingo promoter gambles on the game: Tries to make $7.5-billion industry more attractive to players and sponsors alike p.B21

- For the love of a good cause: Event marketer Pete McAskile reflects on the power of marketers to make good things happen p.B22