There are probably easier sales jobs than trying to excite people around Glendale about the Phoenix Coyotes. Selling a submarine to a farmer in Nebraska, for example.
The Coyotes are an anonymous bunch, with a low payroll (29th in the NHL) and without a legitimate star to market. They're also owned by the NHL, searching for a buyer and constantly facing talk there will be a fleet of moving vans backing up to the arena to relocate the team to Canada in the not too distant future. Even with consecutive playoff appearances, the Coyotes aren't considered close to being a Stanley Cup contender.
So how do you sell this product to an otherwise apathetic consumer?
With the brutal, honest truth, apparently.
The cynicism about their success, the feeling that Glendale will never be a hockey town, the "Curse of the Winnipeg Jets," the relocation to Canada … they are all actually referenced in a new ad created to sell Phoenix Coyotes tickets.
Is this the first marketing campaign in NHL history that asks fans to commit to the team while acknowledging that no one knows how long the team will actually be there?
"It's complicated. They've had a lot of uncertainty. They've had a lot of ups and downs. And they happen to play hockey in the desert," said John King, chief communications officer for Fallon, the ad agency behind the Coyotes' audacious new ad campaign.
"Instead of running away from that, or pretending it wasn't there, when you combine all that stuff with making the playoffs, it makes them kind of the heroes."
Throw in a little BizNasty for flavor, and it's the boldest marketing recipe in the NHL this season.
Fallon Minneapolis added the Coyotes as a client in August. It was the first NHL team it's repped as part of "The Room," its new sports division nicknamed after a hockey dressing room. From the outset, its bold vision for attracting new fans through candor was at the forefront:
"The challenge we're up against is getting people to make an emotional investment with ongoing uncertainty surrounding the team," said John King, Chief Communications Officer at Fallon.
"Our task will be getting the people of the Valley of the Sun to look at the team differently. We're not asking them to get married; we just want them to have a one-night stand. Because we believe if they sample an NHL game live, they'll get hooked and they will come back."
Yeah, but how many one-night stands are born from one person approaching another at the bar and saying: "Hi, no one respects me, everyone doubts my abilities, I'm bankrupt and I might leave the city after this season. So … my place or yours?"
Being honest with the Coyotes' challenges is the hook; it's how this team deals with that adversity that's the selling point.
"What they go through, what they've been through every year, is something we wanted to pay respect to instead of shying away or pretending it didn't exist," said Jessica Walden-Morden, a copywriter at Fallon.
Over the last two seasons, Phoenix has been a successful team: Making the Stanley Cup Playoffs twice, and setting a franchise record with 107 points in 2010. Its season-ticket renewal rate this preseason is the highest its been since it moved to Glendale, according to the team; and while the season-ticket base wasn't mammoth to begin with, the team says its growing: Overall ticket sales are up 25 percent from last season.
Fallon had considerable access to the team to help craft its message, interviewing everyone from new players to team trainers. They helped explain what it's like to be a Phoenix Coyote, and what defines that experience. That feedback helped craft a Coyotes Manifesto that's found on the front page of their website.
"We wanted to create a campaign that respected the players. Doing something that was cheesy or cutesy or shiny happy people didn't feel authentic," said Walden-Morden.
Like a commercial with a hockey-loving talking snowman in the desert?
"No comment on that," she said with a laugh.
Make no mistake: This campaign isn't going to be solely solemn. Not when Phoenix brawler and Twitter celebrity Paul Bissonnette is already a focal point.
"Paul will tell you that no player is bigger than the team. But he's a player that's willing to do anything to help the organization," said King, who said the man known as BizNasty will be a part of the campaign throughout the season.
"We have quite a bit of print and outdoor [advertising] coming. And some of it is certainly lighthearted," said Walden-Morden.
How could it not be with a double-entendre-riffic slogan like "Hockey The Hard Way"?
For example, from the Coyotes website:
Hey, who doesn't, right fellas?
So how far can they take the cheeky aspects of this? Will there be a "Hockey The Hard Way" men's calendar as well?
"It's 12 months of Bissonnette," quipped Walden-Morden.
Joking aside: Can this campaign bring new fans to the Coyotes? Perhaps.
It speaks a universal language for anyone looking to join a movement, which is the language of the underdog. There's a defiance to the campaign — one blue-collar hockey team battling against cynics and naysayers and the entirety of Canada.
King said what Fallon wants to do is marry that idea with the unique aspects of the Coyotes' experience, from their style of play to their geography.
"It's hard enough to play hockey when you're not pulling a scorpion out of your skate," he said.
"There's hockey. And there's hockey the hard way."