SBJ/September 19 - 25, 2005/SBJ In Depth

How the Bruins crafted a campaign to win back fans

Bruins coach Mike Sullivan tapes a commercial called “We’re back” soon after the NHL ended a labor dispute with players and cleared the way for teams to get back in action.
It’s only a few hours into the opening day of training camp at Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden, but Bruins center Sergei Samsonov is already laboring. The winger has tallied more than 20 goals in four separate seasons, but he’s having problems completing one of his first off-ice assignments of the 2005-06 NHL campaign.

“Are those the lines?” he says, squinting into the TelePrompTer. “I can’t see a thing without my glasses,” he says with a laugh, “that’s why I never pass.”

Samsonov and most of the other Bruins regulars are being paraded into a small room at ice level on this warm September day to read for the Bruins’ relaunch campaign. After the 2004-05 NHL season was canceled by labor unrest, the Bruins are taking marketing seriously.

SME Branding, the Manhattan firm that gave the NHL its long-term brand positioning and the New York Rangers their Lady Liberty logo and “True Blue,” is helping to reintroduce the Bruins to the town where they’ve played since 1924.

“Blazing speed, hard shots and hitting the open man,” Samsonov says to the camera, after being allowed enough time to memorize his lines sans corrective lenses. “Playmaking. It’s called Bruins.”

Preaching team values

Across the league, every team is trying to win back its hockey fans. As the NHL’s first U.S. franchise, the Bruins are an interesting test case.

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Almost as soon as the season went dark last year, the team started planning its comeback. Parallels to distressed brands such as Tylenol after poisonings or Audi after a critical “60 Minutes” report are obvious. Still, no one ever waited in line to cheer a Tylenol bottle, so don’t try to convince Charlie Jacobs, a team executive vice president, that this is a relaunch.

Jacobs, slowly replacing his father, Jeremy, as the face of top Bruins management, insists it’s more of an articulation of values built into the Bruins’ DNA than a marketing campaign du jour.

“I keep hearing that we’re relaunching,” Jacobs said, “but really what we ended up doing is illustrating what was already there.”

In focus groups with fans, management and Bruins alums, all the most basic values were mentioned again and again — heart, hustle, desire and dedication. Sessions with pre-eminent Bruins alums such as Ray Bourque, Cam Neely, Terry O’Reilly and John Bucyk confirmed the notion that playing for the Bruins was considered a privilege. The team’s lunch-pail ethic was in vogue, and the old-timers thought it was important that “the Bruins jersey should never touch the floor.”

Actor Denis Leary, a fan of the Bruins, shot this advertisement that touts the team’s character and its commitment to win.
“You like to think your brand is special, but hearing players say things like that just confirms it,” said Richard Krezwick, also an executive vice president of the Bruins. “And while a lot of bad things happened during the lockout, one of the good things was that we had complete involvement for our coach, our GM and hockey ops side of the business. So I’m comfortable this wasn’t just something the marketing department puts together and then it sits in a drawer.”

As for the fans? “Even during the worst of the labor battle, they told us they would forgive, but they wanted access, apologies, discounts, and they didn’t want to be sold to right away when the [dispute] was settled,” said Ed O’Hara, chairman of SME.

Here on the first day of training camp, it seems the fans have gotten most of what they wanted, but the sign painted on the ice at The Garden that reads “Thank You Fans” is probably as much contrition as the Bruins will supply.

As you might imagine during a labor stoppage, fans were angry, but even so, their allegiance for the brand did not waver in focus groups. It’s akin to the political dynamic where “all politicians are crooks‚” but the local congressman or mayor is A-OK.

“Principally, our fans wanted to know when we were coming back and how we would treat them when we did,” Jacobs said, but their loyalty to the team did not falter. Thus, “It’s called Bruins” made sense because the brand was strong enough that even during a labor impasse it pulled at heartstrings.

Changing perceptions

“It’s called Bruins” launched with a “We’re back” spot soon after the labor dispute ended that included hall of famer Neely, coach Mike Sullivan, current Bruin Patrice Bergeron and one of the team’s biggest fans.

Sullivan was joined by hall of famer Cam Neely, current Bruin Patrice Bergeron and one of the team’s fans in the commercial that started the relaunch campaign.
One surprise finding by management was that while the Bruins have one of the most successful regular-season teams of recent years, fans’ perception was that the team was propping up its bottom line at the expense of building a team that could succeed in the playoffs.

“The perception was that we weren’t built to win, despite our regular-season success,” Jacobs said. “I will tell you we will spend close to the [salary] cap if not at it, but we still need to tell fans about how committed we are.”

Thus, team captain Joe Thornton declares in his spot, “I’m here to win the Stanley Cup.”

Actor Denis Leary, an ardent Bruins fan, delivers the Bruins’ new brand manifesto in an ad shot recently on the set of his FX drama, “Rescue Me.”

“The Bruins are Boston,” he says, standing in front of a fire truck. “Not the glitz, but the grit. The Bruins are where character and teamwork matter over individual achievement. The Bruins are the drumbeat of a tribe that is Boston … played in the neighborhoods, heard in the bars and felt in the streets. It’s about the Cup, get to work.”

Dozens of executions will follow, including the ones filmed at the Garden this day. More than $8 million in asset media on the New England Sports Network and regional print and radio will carry the campaign over the next two years — an astounding amount for a local team campaign. Additional marketing concepts include either a campaign or reality show in which a fan will join the team’s front-office staff and an ad with some Bruins in a modern version of Paul Revere’s ride.

Gauging advertising’s effectiveness is never easy, and it is too early to judge if “It’s called Bruins” will do the job. Still, team officials point to a 92 percent season-ticket renewal rate and record individual game ticket sales as early signs of its success.

Not every fan has been won over. A few scattered around the stands during the morning skate tell Jacobs that the team won’t win unless he signs the two big holdouts: defenseman Nick Boynton and goalie Andrew Raycroft. It’s a reminder from the fans — marketing campaigns won’t score goals or keep any out of the net.

Nonetheless, there are fans watching the first day of camp. Of course, if you didn’t have that after a year without hockey, every NHL marketer should worry.

“Given the success of the Red Sox and Patriots here, we do have a real battle for share of mind, but this is a hockey town,” Jacobs said. “I know all the branding won’t mean jack if we don’t provide a winner, but if we do that, now we have the platform to really make it sing.”

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