Brands replace hockey…with hockey

With the NHL lockout still in effect, sponsors like Kraft, Molson and Sport Check are finding alternatives to teaming up with the pros.

Brands use hockey to sell Canadians everything from chocolate bars to guys’ skin care products. And many rely on the National Hockey League as a key marketing vehicle, through sponsorships or promotions. But in the absence of big league pro hockey, some have had to find a new game plan, and many are simply using other levels of hockey to fill the gap.

As the weeks ticked by on the NHL’s lockout-stalled season, the folks at Kraft Canada needed to make a decision about their high-profile Hockeyville contest. Run in partnership with the CBC and the NHL, Hockeyville saw Canadian communities compete to win upgrades to their local arena and to host a pre-season NHL game. The brand says its sales generally jumped 4 to 6% during the program. In the end, Kraft stuck with hockey and will donate $1 million to volunteers at minor hockey associations via a new program called “Hockey Goes On.”

“It was an easy leap for us to go from Kraft Hockeyville to recognizing [hockey] volunteers across this country,” says Jack Hewitt, VP of marketing insight and services at Kraft Canada.

Molson Coors, a big sponsor of the league, delayed some NHL marketing and shifted dollars to promotions tied to lower level pro leagues and amateur hockey.

“We all miss the NHL, but right now we’re focusing a lot of our sponsorship attention on other levels of hockey,” says Molson Coors spokesman Gavin Thompson. For example, Molson Coors is ramping up its in-game promotions and arena advertising around the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies franchise. The brand has also run contests during Ryerson University men’s hockey games that promote responsible drinking, called the “Responsible Ram of the Night.”

Molson Coors has shifted some focus away from the ice, however, boosting marketing activities around the National Basketball Association’s Toronto Raptors and the 100th Grey Cup celebrations. “We do have other properties that we’re able to leverage during [the NHL lockout] and maybe even give them a bit of extra attention,” says Thompson.

And while NHL rinks have fallen silent, some brands sought ways to keep leveraging their presence. NHL sponsor Sport Chek recently teamed up with the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary and the Air Canada Centre in Toronto to let youth players use the ice at both venues. The youngsters received spotlight introductions from the arena announcers as they skated onto the ice, with their names flashing on the scoreboard above. The brand engaged its target – parents buying hockey gear – by playing up the NHL dreams of their children even though the pros are nowhere near the ice.