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‘Because It’s The Cup’: Will the NHL’s courtship of casual fans make Stanley Cup Playoffs a social success?

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"History Will Be Made" became history after last season's Stanley Cup Playoffs. The two-year-old promotion that featured nostalgic moments of postseason glory was one of the most successful advertising campaigns in recent NHL history — especially from a digital perspective, thanks to hundreds of viral video tributes from fans.

But it didn't reach far enough, when the goal is to expand hockey's playoff audience.

"It was nothing short of spectacular. But if you weren't kind of 'in the know', then it wasn't the most welcoming entry point for someone at that time of year," said Brian Jennings, executive VP of marketing for the NHL.

"History was great, but the word 'history' was limiting," he said. "The word 'because' gave us more room to move."

Earlier this season, the NHL welcomed "self-defined sports fans" that didn't have negative impressions of hockey to focus groups in Los Angeles, Toronto and New York. The goal was to gauge their awareness of the League and the playoffs, and to determine what the right selling points were for a "casual" fan.

Problem No. 1: "People had trouble listing a couple of guys on the Kings and the Rangers" when asked, according to Jennings. Which makes player-centric ads a tough sell.

Problem No. 2: After all these years on NBC and VERSUS-turned-NBC Sports Network, these fans still weren't sure where to find the playoffs on television. "They'd say, 'You have to intercept me. I have a busy life. I can't find you,'" said Jennings.

But there were also signs of tantalizing encouragement: These fans generally liked the NHL; and they loved the Stanley Cup.

At the end of the focus group, the facilitator would ask, "What is the championship trophy that gets given out at the end of the year?"

"Unanimously, men and women, would say the Stanley Cup," said Jennings. They knew its prestige and they knew about its traditions: From skating the Cup to having each player spend a day with it during the offseason. "It has a ton of equity," he said.

The NHL's new campaign began to take form. Fans will watch sports for any number of reasons. Fans will watch the NHL Playoffs "Because It's The Cup."

The first spot in the new campaign, created by advertising giant DraftFCB, hit on Thursday night during the Pittsburgh Penguins' game against the New York Rangers: "Two Halftimes."

Because, you see, there are two intermissions. So it's, like, two halftimes. Or third-times. Or ... it's not important.

As we mentioned previously, this is the NHL's beer commercial (appropriate, given that Draft FCB also handles the MillerCoors ads): Pretty 18-to-32 year olds wearing nicely pressed Shop NHL merchandise, making the Stanley Cup Playoffs seem like a community event rather than one in which you sit alone in your rec room out of superstition and fear of uncontrollable vulgarity on missed penalty calls. (Or is that just us?)

Compared to the "History Will Be Made" campaign, it's a rather sharp departure: The previous ads were player-centric and marinated in hockey nerdom; this is the antithesis.

(There's another "partying at a bar" ad in the works that gives us hope: One of the screen shots has a fan wearing a Todd MacFarlane Oil Drop Edmonton sweater.)

Fear not, said Jennings. "Because It's The Cup" goes much deeper than enticing singles to head to the wings bar on a Wednesday night.

"This is a spot [that's airing] a month out before the playoffs, and they're meant for broadening the appeal," he said.

In other words: Trying to convey to the casual fan that the Stanley Cup Playoffs are every bit the social occasion as March Madness or the Super Bowl are sold to be.

As with most things in life, beer helps considerably.

The League's partnership with Molson Canadian and MillerCoors means that "Because It's The Cup" is going to be ubiquitous inside watering holes around North America.

From Buffalo Business Journal:

On the promotional side, while the league has been protective of how it permits sponsors and even licensees to use Stanley Cup images, during this postseason, 4,000 bars across the U.S. and 2,500 in Canada will be drawing Molson Canadian and Coors Light draft with Stanley Cup tap handles.

The main focus of the campaign remains the pressure and excitement of the playoffs, and the teams involved; as well as the Cup itself.

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"Where It's Been" is the next spot in the campaign, and it chronicles some of the quirky destinations for the Stanley Cup — the side of a road, the bottom of a swimming pool — and where it may be headed next (if NASA can get its house in order).

Another spot called "Story" sounds like it could be an instant classic: "In a graphical stop motion time lapse, show the Cup's evolution from original bowl, to addition of rings, then tiered rings — as it grows taller until ending on today's version of the Cup."

Again: The casual sports fan gets the Stanley Cup. It's iconic. So the plan here is to give it a little edge and a lot more focus, as a way to sell the postseason.

"There's nothing in the campaign that would alienate the avid fan, but they can provide an entry point to casual fans," said Jennings.

Perhaps the greatest entry point (and fetishizing of the Cup): a Facebook app that will allow fans to place themselves in a photo, raising the Cup.

Tebowing, eat your heart out …

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Along with social engagement and the Cup, the third part of the campaign is player and team-centric.

Above are posters that will be featured at Dick's Sporting Goods during the playoffs. We're hoping this 50-percent double entendre rate continues to hold …

The NHL has created commercials that feature the Boston Bruins, Vancouver Canucks, Pavel Datsyuk as well as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. As the Playoffs continue, the League's broadcast partners will brand their commercials with "Because It's The Cup," creating an unheralded uniformity in messaging for the NHL.

"For the first time, I think we have everyone on the same page," said Jennings.

It's on this personalized, local level where the campaign will sink or swim. The League wants to tailor ads and materials inside arenas to specific teams.

Some of this is contingent on how far the teams want to take it: The St. Louis Blues, for example, are developing Stanley Cup Playoffs lawn signs branded for the campaign.

Just don't tell the HOA.

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(No, seriously, these are serial killers, right?)

Overall, the campaign follows what the NHL sees as its "fan adoption path"; i.e., how a casual fan becomes a knowledgeable die-hard.

According to internal NHL documents, the path from light engagement to heavy engagement goes like this:

• Emotional Investment in Team Rivalries
• Social Awareness of Big Events (like the Winter Classic)
• Understanding The Game (the dreaded "what is icing?" question)
• Personal Attachment to Players
• Appreciation of Traditions (Kissing the Cup, Fan Chants)
• Understanding of the Game's History
• Insider Knowledge of Stats (including fantasy hockey)

Looking at that path, "Because It's The Cup" assumes that first level of engagement is intrinsic for the postseason. The target for the casual fan is the second level: Getting them excited for the Stanley Cup Playoffs as a must-see event, and then keeping them excited for the other monthly events the NHL has every season — the Winter Classic, All-Star Game, Hockey Day in America, etc.

"There are all platforms that give people a chance for an inside peek," said Jennings.

Can "Because It's The Cup" successful straddle the line between courting the casual fans and catering to the die-hards? Ultimately, the marketplace will decide — as will the digital-savvy fans that'll either embrace, ignore or reject the new tagline.

One thing's for sure: If "History Will Be Made" was an arrow to the hearts of nostalgia-loving fans, "Because It's The Cup" is like a sawed-off shotgun: Buckshot spraying everywhere, hitting multiple targets with an intense velocity.

"It's about, 'how do we socialize the Stanley Cup Playoffs and make them more relevant to our avid fans and casual sports fans that are maybe on the fringe? And how do we celebrate the Cup?'" said Jennings.

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