NHL Says "What If..." Campaign All About Engaging Fans, and It's Working

Matt Hutter@mahutter12Analyst IMay 14, 2010

"What if Bobby didn't fly?"

That was the first of several "what if..." questions posed using the NHL's newest ad campaign that began at the beginning of the NHL playoffs.

In an interview with Bleacher Report on Friday, NHL Executive VP of Marketing Brian Jennings said that in creating the first spot using Bobby Orr's iconic "flight" after scoring the Cup winning goal in the 1969-70 Stanley Cup Finals, the league knew it had something special.

"This year what we wanted to do was wrap the central theme of this campaign in and around these most iconic moments in sports history", Jennings explained.

"The Bobby Orr spot really kind of kicked it off for us and we felt a little bit of magic in the room with the thought of Bobby flying through the air backwards and evoking that question, 'What if Bobby didn't fly?'. We said there's something very special here and wanted to do it."

After the original Bobby Orr spot aired, the NHL created several other pieces that centered on iconic moments in NHL history provided by Hall of Fame players such as Patrick Roy, Steve Yzerman, and Ray Bourque.

However, the intention behind the campaign wasn't simply to highlight moments of the past, but transition to include moments from this playoff year as they happen, as history in the making.

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"History is being made every night", said Jennings. 

Jennings explained that the spots are not only being aired on television but are now being shown in arenas before and during games, further heightening the excitement level and engagement of the fans.

"We've gotten these amazing moments that have been captured by our fans when they're seeing these [spots] for the first time, of an incredible play from the night before."

Though one of the key demographics for any sports marketing campaign remains the so-called "casual sports fan", Jennings explained that the NHL was actually more interested in engaging more deeply with established NHL fans.

"Our strategy has really been about activating the avids", Jennings said.

To that end, Jennings referred to the NHL's market research that revealed that, among groups of fans of other sports, hockey fans are more engaged with new media that includes mobile media, online communities and video-download sites.

"Our research has indicated that [NHL fans] are definitely early adopters of technology, definitely more comfortable with technology [than other fans]."

With that in mind, the NHL made sure to debut these spots on NHL.com before airing them on national broadcasts.

"These types of moments, even to a casual sports fan, are pretty iconic and they capture their imagination by asking that provocative question, 'what if this didn't occur?'.  And I think what you're seeing online is that it did [capture the fans' imagination].  It kind of hit a thread and went a little bit more mainstream.  So, it did what we wanted it to do."

Jennings was referring to the dozens of fan produced videos that have popped up on sites like youtube.com that are patterned after the "What if..." campaign.

Jennings said that although some are parodies and others are more genuine in their intent, the league views these videos as a positive as, clearly, the campaign has resonated with fans.

"We're fine with it," Jennings stated.  "We don't unnecessarily care for the mean spirited stuff against an individual player or team, but if they're just having some fun and they're showing their passion, that's an engaged fan base. Some of them are quite well done."

In addition to the fans' use of online media to produce their own content, Jennings said that when it comes to video downloads and accessing league generated content, much of which fans can contribute to through discussion boards and blogs, the NHL outpaces the NFL, MLB, and NBA.

"[With] the amount of video starts and video completions, we out-index every other league, so it shows that the engagement level [of the fans] is very high.  We look at this as we're positioned well to take advantage of it and we want to continue to use the medium to connect our fans and give them a voice."

As the "What if..." campaign has proved to be a huge success, Jennings said that the NHL is planning on producing a "very special spot planned for the Stanley Cup Finals, something that will tug at the heartstrings."

Finally, when asked about the reasons why this campaign has resonated so well with the fans, Jennings said, "There's no doubt this [campaign] was very authentic and definitely speaks to the history [of the game]."

Fans can get a first look at all the upcoming spots in the "What if..." campaign by going to nhl.com and clicking on the "History Will be Made" button.

Speaking from a fan's perspective, I loved this campaign before speaking to Brian Jennings.  However, after speaking to him about the league's focus and execution of the campaign, I'm even more impressed with what they've done.

It's quite clear that the NHL knows two things: 1. hockey remains largely underrepresented in the mainstream sports media 2. they know how to reach their fans on their own terms.

I half expected Brian to talk about how the NHL is trying to sell the game's history to the casual fan and that, in so doing, maybe they can get back on ESPN or get more coverage on Sports Center.

At least for now, that's really not the league's focus at all.

They saw a need to get more engaged with traditional hockey fans before trying to move into the sticky business of attracting those who don't know a clothesline from a blueline.

It's a bold stance, honestly.

Trying to be all things to all people is something many companies and organizations try to do and almost never succeed.

The NHL isn't going down that road.  As fans, they know who we are and how we get our information and we remain their primary focus.

Though the game and the league itself is not without its problems, when it comes to connecting with the fans, the NHL is second to none.