Live at the 2012 Winter Classic: Marketing and Branding the Event


As a chilling wind blew across the field at Citizens Bank Park – bitter enough to remind climbers of the slopes of Mount Everest – Daniel Craig and his ice crew continued to lay down layers of mist onto the surface of the rink that has become an annual event. By the end of the day on Wednesday, December 28, the ice surface was just over one inch thick, and on schedule to be ready in time for Friday morning’s media hockey game. Although this scene is one that has been constant since 2008 when the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres faced off at Ralph Wilson Stadium for the first ever Winter Classic, the NHL has made it a point to ensure that the idea of the Winter Classic remains fresh each year, rather than becoming “just another event,” as so many detractors of the event have posited.

Brian Jennings, the NHL’s Executive Vice President of Marketing has been with the league since 1990, and is in charge of one of the largest sports marketing campaigns in the world – and a daunting task at that, considering the NHL’s standing among the four major sports in the United States. Yet somehow the NHL has managed to increase the event’s popularity in its fifth year of existence. According to Jennings, Winter Classic products made up for 15 of the top 20 items in the NHL.com store, and demand for the event’s products online and in the NHL store in New York is helping contribute to a double digit increase in sales – despite the announcement and jerseys coming much later than normal.

In addition, there was a worry that the lack of change in the Philadelphia Flyers’ logo would hinder sales of the products – but it wasn’t one that Jennings shared. “The Philadelphia uniform, Mr. Snider has a real passion for the Philadelphia logo itself, not a lot of alterations to that,” Jennings explained at a press conference at Citizens Bank Park. “In the past years, a lot of teams have allowed us to do a fusion type of Winter Classic uniform, but he felt strongly in what the (logo) represents.”

The league also released two commercials that grasp at the two sides to this year’s Winter Classic. The first one (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuW_hvVQXUI) focuses on the rivalry between the Flyers and Rangers, citing the “City of Brotherly Love” as null and void for just one day in Philadelphia. The second is a take of the famous “Good Ol’ Hockey Game” song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yd5dF5Tjg4E), instead focusing on the fun of an outdoor game in the cold of winter. These two ads have both contributed to the experienced and expected success of this year’s game.

Lastly, Jennings discussed how he and the league manages to keep this event special for the fans each year. Above all, he believes, the location of the game keeps it fresh. “The marketplace is what you look for in those periods of being unique,” he explained. “So you always want to tip your hat and acknowledge that you’re in a marketplace – Philadelphia – that has strong hockey roots. Each year we try to do things differently with our partners to showcase the game. I think you look to your partners, to see if they’re launching a new product or commercial, as a point of differentiation.”

Jennings concluded by explaining the process by which the league makes decisions on how to approach each year’s outdoor game. “When we do an event like this, we do a pretty extensive debrief. We look at what went well, or if something hadn’t gone well, how do we fix it, how do we make it special for the fans? I can tell you that the league has a very laser focus on what that fan experience is, from those that are walking into Spectator Plaza, those that are going into the stadium, and those that are watching from home.”

And if it’s any consolation for those worried about how this year’s Winter Classic will turn out, it’s already shaping up to surpass expectations – for the fifth year in a row.

Alan Bass, a former writer for The Hockey News and THN.com, is the author of The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed The NHL Forever. He has worked for the Philadelphia Flyers’ Fan Development department, going to schools throughout the tri-state area to teach about fitness and the importance of teamwork. He is the General Manager of the Muhlenberg College Division II hockey team as well. You can contact him at Alanbasswriting@aol.com.

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