Marketing the Classic: Can hockey have a 7th-inning stretch?

(Ed Note: This is Part Two of Puck Daddy's interview with Brian Jennings, Executive Vice President of Marketing for the NHL, regarding how the League plans to sell and create interest around the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. Read Part One here.)

The first part of our Winter Classic discussion with Brian Jennings, executive vice president of marketing for the NHL, focused on how the League and its media partners planned to use the intrinsic nostalgia and gravitas of Wrigley Field to sell hockey to the masses.

But what about when the marketing stops and the game starts? What Wrigley Field traditions can transfer to a hockey game?

Throwing back home-run balls on the field? While we wouldn't put it past enterprising Chicago Blackhawks fans to smuggle in pucks and toss them from the bleachers when the Detroit Red Wings score, we also can't really endorse the idea, either. (At least officially.)

What about something more benign? Like singing, for example.

Harry Carey's iconic version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch has already been used in promoting the Winter Classic. Is there any chance we might hear some kind of Carey-esque singing at Wrigley's Winter Classic?

"Great question," said Jennings, in our interview last week. More about that, and several other Winter Classic marketing topics, in Part Two of our conversation.

Regarding singing at the Winter Classic, it sounds like there will be some at the game. Here's what Jennings offered:

"I think at this point, we're trying to think about what would be our twist on the Seventh Inning Stretch. Should we have a celebrity, like it's done in baseball? There are going to be celebrities present at the game; I'm mum on the word right now. We're going to work in something that's creative, to signify that the game is being played at Wrigley."

Celebrities, eh? Combine the famous-for-hockey faces (hello, Taylor Kitsch) with Chicago-bred stars (wonder what Bill Murray and Vince Vaughn are doing on New Year's Day?), and there are possibilities. Jennings offered up Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins (he, like me, is a fan). Billy's Chicago enough and he's sung at Wrigley before, but if we're going with a guest rocker then you've gotta go with Ozzy again, right?

Speculation aside, there are larger issues at play here. Namely, what they hell would they sing, and when the hell would they sing it?

Perhaps Stompin' Tom Connors' "The Hockey Song?" Is that too long? Remember, Jack Norworth's classic "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" is significantly abridged for public performance. Besides, "The Hockey Song" can be played during a commercial break in an NHL game; it should be Winter Classic worthy, in theory.

But, again, when would they sing it?

"What is the NHL's twist on a Seventh Inning Stretch, knowing that we don't have those kinds of breaks?" said Jennings. "We'll try and orchestrate something that has some fun for the fans."

Getting back to the selling of the Classic, here's more of our conversation with Brian Jennings of the NHL:

PD: Are you going to infuse any humor into this marketing? This ad was great, but it was also super-serious. Bob Costas doesn't help that, either.

JENNINGS: I do believe there's a way to weave it in, and I don't think authenticity and humor need to be mutually exclusive.

Having said that, I have a very strong feeling and point of view that when a League speaks about its brand, you need to do it from a position of authenticity. You can't get too whimsical. Your partners will push you into areas that will stretch your brand, and perhaps even make you a little uncomfortable about how they're doing it. But when leagues speak about it, you have to ground it in authenticity. If you're treating yourself too whimsically, you risk alienating your core [fans].

Think about the job we need to do, from a North American perspective. There needs to be one consistent message, yet when you think about our position as a market-leading brand in Canada and our positioning in the U.S., they're different. So you have to do things a little differently, yet look like it's coming from a single entity.

For example: Our [upcoming] World Juniors ad. In Canada, it's like a passage: The guys who are competing for Team Canada are ultimately going to go on and have incredible careers in the National Hockey League.

So we thought about this concept where we do a montage of players; envision Joe Thornton with his hand in the air, and a big smile on his face; Phil Kessel, Roberto Luongo; heavy Canada, but no just Canada. Marian Hossa, Carey Price, Alexander Ovechkin and then Sidney Crosby. A quick montage of players, all hands elevated in the air, and then it says: "Everyone who got their start in World Juniors, raise your hand."

And then it says, "The World Junior Championships: Where the NHL's best begins."

This is an example of what I'd like to call a brand-elevating piece. You know what, League? Don't take yourself so seriously. There's something else going on in the world of hockey.

It's not done humorously, but it's a tip of the hat to say in this country, the world kind of stops for those two weeks. It's our way of saying there's something else going on that's really important.

Are you at all concerned about using snow and winter weather in the promotion of the 2009 Classic? Because there's no guarantee we're going to have the same aesthetic we had in Buffalo over in Chicago.

All those things get talked about and debated. We weren't trying to give any promise about what the weather was going to be like in Chicago [in the TV ad]. One of the biggest risks in doing this is taking in all of the different weather factors into account: wind to freezing rain on polycarbonate shields. I think the ending with a little bit of snow is just a reminder that the game is outdoors in the wintertime. And having a little bit of fun with a special effect. We didn't want to overdo it.

The last thing I wanted to ask you was about what, if anything, you and NHL marketing have learned from one Winter Classic to the next?

In the first year, even though we have high levels of expectations, I think we were overwhelmed at the success. We put together a marketing plan in Buffalo, working very closely with the Buffalo Sabres; when we sold out in like 40 minutes, we were like "wow." It is a holiday, people have plans; without the historical data, you feel a little naked.

The first year, you take copious notes. You learn a lot. And then we applied all of that knowledge to this year. But every market, every venue has its own challenges. In Year 2, we're very involved with the mayor's office. The rooftops are a different opportunity in Chicago, too.

If I had to encapsulate it, I'd say it's for all hockey fans. It wasn't about Buffalo playing the Pittsburgh Penguins, and this year it's not about Chicago playing Detroit. It's about transcending those markets.

Success for me is to see 28 other markets tuning in, and fans coming together to acknowledge that in a world of other choices, hockey in an engaging game.

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