The main goal of the Winter Classic has always been to take the game back to its outdoor roots, and that is what the NHL’s director of marketing Brian Jennings and his crew aimed to do with their commercials. They’ve helped turn the Winter Classic into a must-see event for not only die-hard hockey fans, but also the average sports fan.
“Overall, what the Winter Classic from a brand has become is really a true celebration of the sport of hockey for all hockey fans,” Jennings told NESN.com. “And I think the game returning to its roots is kind of the core effort of our marketing pitch, and as you saw the spot, you can really sense it whether you see the digital banners and the essence that we have and if you listen to our radio spots.
“The case is really a 360-degree marketing angle that we take and we try to surround the fans and intercept them wherever they are in their busy lives and make sure that they understand this game is a special game and is … something that they are looking forward to.”
The commercial for the 2010 Winter Classic was built on the awe and amazement of playing outdoor hockey. As Jennings pointed out, the goal was to show how even superstars like Zdeno Chara, Chris Pronger or Mike Richards can experience that sense of wonderment when they step on the ice. The commercial follows the players down their respective runways at the TD Garden and the Wachovia Center and then captures their bewilderment as they step outside into a winter wonderland.
“So there was really one commercial shot that was done to capture that and that’s the spot that I think you’ve seen run. … All of a sudden it’s magically transformed into an outdoor pond-hockey game,” Jennings said. “And what is that look of wonderment and amazement that even professional athletes get when they step outside and they feel the cold air and they feel the senses of the great outdoors in an event. That is what we tried to capture and it’s what we wanted to do and we certainly wanted to be very respectful of the place we are playing in — historic Fenway Park.”
The first Winter Classic took place at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, and as Jennings pointed out, preparing a commercial spot for that game between the Penguins and the Sabres was much different than preparing for last year’s in a baseball park, similarly historic Wrigley Field in Chicago. The different settings in 2008 and 2009 served as a valuable lesson for Jennings and his crew.
“It certainly did change the approach,” he said of going from a football stadium to a ballpark. “We gathered our thoughts, but in the true essence of the brand, it really hasn’t changed all that much from the perspective that it is a celebration of hockey, a celebration of the game outdoors. We had shot a spot with the Sabres and Ryan Miller and were not able to have it as dramatic with music and stuff like that.”
But for 2009, they took the lessons they learned and found the magic they were looking for. With more time to prepare, they were able to gauge the fans’ responses to 2008 and realize what the event has come to mean for them.
“Each year, we’ve taken more and more resources and energy and recognize that it has become such a ‘look-forward-to’ event on the calendar,” Jennings said. “And we see a lot on the social networking board and we’ve seen a lot on the sites such as Twitter and Facebook, Puck Daddy and all the different areas where fans congregate and talk about their love and passion for the sport.
“It’s fun to just monitor their comments about what is going on, such as, ‘Oh man, I can’t wait.’ I pulled up just a couple of other comments such as, ‘I don’t even watch hockey. I’m from Florida and I already got the DVR set for this game,’ or ‘Last year’s game was awesome,’ or ‘This game is on the top of my list for sporting events for someone to see. Hats off to the NHL.’”
Last year, Jennings and his staff decided to capture the history and magic of Wrigley Field, bringing players from both teams to the ballpark for a scene of them suiting up for action in the baseball clubhouses. They also filtered in the voice and harmony of Cubs icon Harry Caray and the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
“You realize that you are resonating with your fans and so, year two, going into a baseball park, we recognize that it was Wrigley,” Jennings said. “We started to unearth with the Cubs a rich, great history. Wouldn’t it be kind of magical to celebrate Harry Caray and the ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ and have our players in the stadium kind of celebrating it, but also giving it a hockey twist? We got very high marks not only from the media, but were recognized by winning an Emmy. It was universally hailed as a great spot.”
The same approach was taken with Boston and Fenway Park, as they tried to celebrate the magic of Fenway, Boston’s rich history and outdoor hockey. Once again, players from both sides were used in the spot and Jennings credited them for helping to complete the essence of the spot.
“We feel the same way about this year’s spot, which is again, transforming the game from the indoors to the outdoors within the core of the big idea behind it and really showcasing our players,” Jennings said. “When you get Chris Pronger, Scott Hartnell and Daniel Briere walking out and making a 30-second spot and then the same with Zdeno Chara, David Krejci and Marco Sturm and Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron, they really have a lot of fun doing it. And I think we captured the right spirit of it. Each year, it has evolved and we continue to keep the threshold of it at a very, very high level.”
Jennings and the marketing gurus at the NHL will once again try to learn what they did right and wrong with the 2010 spot and the marketing as a whole, then take the lessons learned and apply them to the next Winter Classic. But he’s hoping fans — and specifically those in Boston — were moved, just as he tried to capture the hearts and minds of those in Chicago and Buffalo.
“What you want to do is look and take what really worked and pleased the crowd from prior years but give it that unique twist that makes it so Bostonian in this particular year,” he said. “That’s what we always try to do because I think the fans, whether they are watching it on television or whether they are in the venue itself, you want to have that thing that makes it special and have them say ‘You know what? Wow, they really thought about this market [more] uniquely than anything they have done in the past.’ That’s being a good marketer, the heart of it, and that’s what we need to do.”
NESN.com’s James Murphy will be answering one Winter Classic question every day leading up to the event.
Tuesday, Dec. 22: How were the referees chosen for the game?
Thursday, Dec. 24: Where will next year’s Winter Classic be held?