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MKTG Insights: The Puck Has Dropped on Ambush Season

MKTG Insights: The Puck Has Dropped on Ambush Season

With the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics less than one month away, queue the hockey themed advertising for Canadian brands. In the next few weeks during the lead-in to the Sochi Olympics, consumers can expect to be treated to a flurry of marketing activity featuring hockey players and hockey themes as brands attempt to associate themselves with the Canada's premiere winter sport. It is no surprise that a theme like hockey is elevated in an Olympic cycle; for brands, there is an opportunity to align yourself to a truly unifying experience. At the 2010 Vancouver Games, two-thirds of the Canadian population (22 million people) watched as Sidney Crosby scored the game-winning goal. There is no property in Canada that matches Team Canada Olympic hockey on fan avidity and passion. For brands looking to meet consumers at a passion point, hockey serves as a strong platform.

However, a closer look into this spike in hockey-themed marketing activity would reveal that many of the brands tying themselves to the Olympics are not actually official sponsors of the Olympic Games, the Canadian Olympic Committee or Hockey Canada. Each Olympic cycle, the ambush sponsorship debate is reignited; should brands shelve out the massive rights fees required of Official sponsors? Or, should they ambush the games through "implied sponsorship", banking on the fact that consumers will be unable to differentiate between the two approaches? Is it really ambush if the brand is an authentic supporter of hockey year after year? How much protection for sponsors is too much? Can the COC do more to protect their sponsors? Does the act of protection itself just shine a brighter line on the accused ambusher? We're not seeking to answer these questions in this report. Rather, we intend to provide some examples so that industry enthusiasts can be more informed on what is transpiring in the market. Amidst all of the questions and debate on the theme of Ambush Marketing, what we know with absolute certainty is that there will always be brands that choose to play in the grey area.

The brands who are utilizing hockey in their campaigns today range from major sponsors who have authentic and sustained presence in hockey, to those who simply want the thematic presence. Despite that range, all these brands have one thing in common;  by all, there is a clear attempt to ratchet up the hockey narrative in preparation for Sochi. Looking at the wide variety of hockey-themed spots currently in-market, MKTG has chosen some of the more prominently featured spots, breaking down the approach taken by each brand responsible for the advertisement:

Netflix: Netflix's creative spot is just that: a 30-second advertisement. The content provider is currently making no plays in sports sponsorship. However, the speculation that Netflix will follow the lead of HBO and Showtime by offering sports content or bidding on media rights for sporting events - even as part of a loss leader / viewer happiness strategy - may indicate a future for the brand in content-driven partnerships. In the mean time, Netflix's attempt to leverage hockey in their earned media is simply a thematic / implied play.

Maxwell House: Maxwell's use of Ron Maclean, a fixture on Hockey Night in Canada and a symbol of Canada's pastime, is a clear attempt to leverage a moment in time where an entire nation of consumers is captivated by hockey. Kraft has successfully built a relationship with the sport of Hockey through landmark programs like Hockeyville and Hockey Goes On during the most recent lockout. After building up equity for the Kraft name, the company is now likely looking to build equity for the product brands themselves. The current Maclean partnership is an opportunity to associate one of their core brands to the sport who has yet to thematically utilize hockey. Additionally, this creative spot may speak to Maclean's relevance as a property - while his HNIC co-host Don Cherry has received significant sponsor interest in the past, is Cherry's polarizing style redirecting brands seeking to leverge HNIC's brand equity towards Maclean?

Tim Horton's: Crosby, the hero for Team Canada during the Vancouver 2010 games and likely captain of the Sochi 2014 team, was smartly leveraged by Tim's during the lead-in to Sochi. With the national spotlight on Crosby, his power as an endorser is stronger than ever. Horton's is neither a Hockey Canada nor a COC sponsor. However, their Canadiana-themed hockey ad is an aptly-time attempt to imply an association with the 2014 Games.

Canadian Tire (MKTG Client): Much like Crosby for Horton's, Jonathan Toews (Vancouver 2010 Tournament MVP) will play a leadership role in Sochi, a win for Canadian Tire. CTC has a major sponsorship deal with Toews, Hockey Canada, and the Canadian Olympic Committee, providing them with all the ingredients to leverage their partnership across all platforms and channels. The dominant player in the sale of hockey equipment (and for that matter sporting goods) in Canada, the company's relationship with the sport of hockey is core to their business model. Their pre-Olympic campaign is simply a reaffirmation of their commitment to the sport.

Molson: An official Olympic sponsor, Molson elected to differentiate themselves this Olympic cycle. Instead of leveraging athletes or sports imagery in their creative expression, Molson elected to showcase the fan experience in their pre-Sochi campaign. Molson is so closely linked to the sport of hockey that they don't necessarily need to emphasize Olympic marks and logo's in their creative. In a crowded marketplace, a unique approach will drive deeper engagement for them. 

Nike: As a non-Olympic sponsor, Nike has consistently found creative ways to ambush the games. In London 2012, it was thier "Find Your Greatness" campaign that was celebrated for it's viralocity. Fast-forward two years later, and the sponsor is back at in Sochi with their "All Ice is Home Ice" campaign. Nike leveraged two of their athletes (and two Team Canada members) in Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty two align themselves with Olympic hockey. In a smart play by Nike, they rolled out the campaign during theWorld Jr.'s, which they had every right to do as a sponsor of Hockey Canada; by thematically bridging these two major events, Nike has successfully implied a partnership with the Olympic games despite no formal deal existing. Due to Nike's endemic status with the sport of hockey, this connection to the common consumer appears authentic.

Verdict: Like it or not, Ambush marketing is here to stay. In light of this, here's three things brands should keep in mind when planning their campaigns:

1) There is no environment more cluttered in Canada than hockey. With so much sponsor activity, the brands who win the day will be those who go beyond a 30 second spot and build authentic relationships with the sport. A great :30 spot will drive your message, but a robust program will give it meaning.

2) The hockey hierarchy for sponsors in Canada is complex. Many brands will be flag-waving come Olympic time; it is those who can tell a unique story that ties into their brand truth who will receive the greatest lift post-Sochi and beyond. If the campaign can run without your brand then it's not the right campaign for you.

3) The best defence is a good offence. If you are a sponsor who is concerned with potential ambush be prepared to defend your turf. Plan for the potential actions of competitors and use the unique rights and assets afforded to you to create a differentiated program. Leverage the property (and your agency!) to dig deep for revolutionary ideas.

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