Re-thinking the Ottawa Senators' Marketing Strategy

Harry How

Like many Sens ticket purchasers I was sent an email feedback survey about my ticket buying preferences on Thursday. Included in a section on factors which influence your decision in buying game packs was this statement: "Secure a ticket to a Detroit Red Wings game to see Daniel Alfredsson play". This was too soon from the Sens marketing team; the majority of Sens fans want to see Alfie play - in a Sens uniform. The deeper problem was this line of thinking is emblematic of what is wrong with the Sens marketing strategy: it doesn't focus on the Sens.

Sens marketing has always focused on the opposition. The problem is, the Leafs and the Habs have marketing departments, the Red Wings have one too; the Penguins have a marketing department and the backing of the NHL to let fans know what Sid is up to. While in-game marketing has shifted towards the home team in recent years, regional rivalries continue to do much of the legwork in promoting the Sens. Sens-centric marketing often boils down to annual slogans; this year's "This is Senators Country" seems more a statement about regional broadcasting rights than an elaboration on the character of the team or its fans. The marketing strategies which have made the most waves - the centurion intro from a few years ago, the plea to fans not to give Leaf fans tickets last year - are laughed at around the league.

The traditional barriers to the growth of Ottawa's fan base - the franchise's youth and its location between the large, rich, and historic markets of Toronto and Montreal - have allowed complacency to set in within the organization. However, this needn't be the case. A refreshing and creative marketing strategy would go a long way to improving the team's branding, fan satisfaction and loyalty, and most importantly, growth.

Not all of these changes need to be expensive, many are simple. But it will require the team to overcome this inertia.

Seize opportunities. Daniel Alfredsson's departure and signing for a division rival sucks, there's no way around it. But from a marketing standpoint, it's not the end of the world. Far from it, actually. I've written before how the surprising 2011-2012 season and All-Star Game festivities allowed Sens fans to show their appreciation to their long-time captain and begin to say goodbye. But that season also illustrated that this new, post-Alfie area will be led Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza. Alfie's departure provides an opportunity to build on the team's established identity with a long-time Senator in Spezza and one of the most dynamic players in the NHL in Karlsson. Karlsson's image in particular should be plastered on every program and intermission interview. He is perhaps the first and only Senator to have league-wide appeal. Hockey fans around the league are starting to tune into Sens games just to watch him play. He's young, dynamic, confident, and successful, on top of being good-looking. In the few months since he's been on twitter he's shown a flair for social media that few Sens players can match. #lalala

Use what you've got. The team may have a short history, but the Sens do have two decades of highlights, stories, and players to draw from. The team has an alumni group, but this group is small and driven by charity works. The Ottawa Senators Alumni was formed in 1992 and is a group of 45 former Sens players and other former pro hockey players who live in the Ottawa region. They raise money for a variety of charitable causes through exhibition hockey games, golf tournaments, and gala dinners. This is a great organization doing good work. But the team needs a larger alumni association, for all the team's former members. Fan attachments die hard, and returning to players from past seasons for anniversaries and occasional promotions is a useful marketing tool. Players like to play for organizations that take care of them, even past their playing days and the casual association of an alumni group maintains these links.

Personalize the building. One of the biggest pluses for the team from a branding perspective is that the organization owns the arena and no other major pro teams make it their permanent home. This gives the team a number of options currently not being exercised. Leave no doubt that the Palladium/Corel Centre/SBP/CTC is the home of the Senators. In the past couple of seasons the organization has made a few improvements to the facility; improved concession options and revamped merchandise locations improve fans' in-game experience. The wall mural tributes to Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Phillips on the occasion of their 1,000th games touch on Sens history, and tribute to the original Ottawa Senators and the region's strong hockey ties are a nice start. But much of CTC still lacks personality; for the most part, the walls are bland, the lighting is poor, and the interior space communicates little about team and fan experience. This recent graphic redesign for English football club Wolverhampton Wanderers illustrates how the bowels of a team's buildings can become important branding statements.

Establish a dedicated space within the building for team history. While a large, dynamic museum is my pipe dream, many North American arenas and stadiums have space dedicated for team history: photos, memorabilia, and awards tell the story of a team. Fans connect to their teams in a variety of ways and viewing museum pieces such as programs, tickets stubs, pucks, and sticks connects the viewer to moments in team history. A Sens history room/museum can become part of fans' pre-game rituals, another part of the game day experience that makes it worthwhile to go to the arena.

Offer tours of Canadian Tire Centre. While not standard practices in NHL rinks, stadium tours are common in other sports like baseball or soccer. I've been on a few soccer stadium tours in England and have always enjoyed the experience. Touring my club's facilities connects me to the team's history, its present, and a match-day experience I am often geographically removed from. I can sit in my team's dressing room, where my favourite players prepare weekly. I can pose for pictures in front of famous signs and stands, and sit on the players' bench. I took a tour of Air Canada Centre a year-and-a-half ago and I had access to the visiting team's dressing room, the Raptors dressing room, the Leafs bench, private boxes, and the press box. A stadium/arena tour allows fans access to areas of the team's space not normally accessible through the game-day experience. I've also gone on stadium tours for baseball teams and soccer clubs that I don't support and have had excellent experiences. These tours are an opportunity to project a team's image, an opportunity which shouldn't be ignored. Many organizations that have tours limited availability on game day or during the season. If the team is concerned about how many visitors the tour would attract, they could limit the sessions to the off-season or certain times of day.

Establish an annual Senators Fan Convention. The summer provides a marketing challenge to all NHL teams. Without games to play, it's hard for an organization to maintain a buzz around their team. The Senators have actually made strides in this department by turning the team's annual rookie camp into part development camp/part fan outreach. But the development camp takes place at the end of June/start of July, leaving over two months between the end of the week-long exercise and the beginning of training camp. Again, the Sens should look to other teams in the NHL for summer content ideas.

Just two NHL teams hold an annual fan convention. The Chicago Blackhawks are holding their 6th annual Blackhawks Convention from July 26-28. The Blackhawks first convention in 2008 built on the excitement generated by a strong second-half to the 2007-2008 season that saw the team fall just shy of the playoffs and the emergence of young stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith. Six years later, the three-day event is already sold out and attracts thousands of fans each year. The Washington Capitals host their fourth annual Capitals Convention on September 21; Caps Conventions also sell-out, with last year's event attracting more than 6,500 fans. Both conventions feature similar line-ups: Hawks/Caps autograph opportunities, Q&A discussions, interactive games, and memorabilia vendors. In addition, the longer convention allows the Blackhawks to have an opening ceremony on the Friday night. The Capitals Convention strives to provide a behind-the-scenes look at hockey operations and also features NHL trophies and awards for picture opportunities, a nice touch for a fan base that doesn't have convenient access to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Ottawa could easily host an annual Senators Convention. The All-Star Game Fan Fest at the Ottawa Convention Centre illustrated the site's suitability for such an event. If the downtown location proves unworkable for scheduling or financial reasons, the floor of the Canadian Tire Centre can easily be converted for such an event. Hosting at CTC allows for ample parking and provides outdoor space for interactive games. Current players would be available for autographs and Q&A sessions, while other discussion panels could feature coaches and management, and radio and TV personalities. Maybe a round table discussion with Sens bloggers about advanced stats. A Senators Convention is the perfect opportunity to utilize a revamped Sens Alumni Association. The event could feature a roundtable discussion with the first Sens team to make the playoffs or a Q&A with the team that came so close to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2003. This would also build on the successes of the 20th anniversary campaign, when the inaugural team took part in ceremonies marking the anniversary in 2011-2012. The Sens could work with the league to bring NHL awards and trophies to the convention, similar to the Capitals Convention, especially trophies recently won by those in the Senators organization. While Ottawa is not as far away from Toronto and the Hockey Hall of Fame as Washington is, there are many Sens fans who have not made the trip. This would be a great opportunity for fans to look for Erik Karlsson's name on the Norris or Paul MacLean's name on the Jack Adams and to take pictures with the Stanley Cup. A fan convention is an opportunity to sell merchandise; if a convention was held this summer it would be the perfect opportunity to move a lot of new Bobby Ryan jerseys or new captain's jerseys.

Significantly, initiatives such as a fan convention provide opportunities to connect with the city's business community. The Blackhawks offer a one night stay package and a weekend convention package, which include hotel accommodation and convention passes. The Senators could work with local hotels to offer a similar package. The Blackhawks Convention has grown to include half a dozen corporate sponsors - relationships the Sens would love to have. Outdoor activities could be expanded to include a 3-on-3 or 5-on-5 road hockey tournament featuring Sens veterans. They could play local police officers or firefighters or university hockey teams. Given Eugene Melnyk's interest in Canadian troops serving in Afghanistan and the proximity of CFB Petawawa, a team of soldiers could also participate. With expanded outdoor entertainment, additional food /concession options will be necessary. The City of Ottawa expanded food truck offerings for 2013; inviting a variety of food trucks not only provides fans with a more diverse culinary experience but again, strengthens ties with the business community.

Use training camp as a marketing tool. For a long time the team and some fans have used the restrictions of the Ottawa region to remain small market. But out-of-market hockey packages are available on TV and the internet, the team just needs to give people a reason to tune in. There are a lot of under-served hockey markets in Canada and if an NHL team made an actual effort to connect to these communities and regions some would become fans for life. The Sens should go after the Northern Ontario market. While many in the northern portion of the province will undoubtedly still support the Leafs, the Canadiens, and the Jets, Ottawa is on the border of Northern Ontario, a region of over 700,000 people. Holding training camp or part of training camp in North Bay, a community of over 50,000, would make a statement in the region. The community's Memorial Gardens hosted the New York Islanders and Atlanta Thrashers as part of a Kraft Hockeyville exhibition game in 2007. The Sens could co-ordinate efforts with the OHL's recently relocated North Bay Battalion: the teams could participate in a couple of joint practices and finish with an exhibition game with proceeds going to a local charity in advance of the OHL season. Bring Sens alumni who are from Northern Ontario. Northern Ontario provides ample team building opportunities; the region has established nature and outdoor tourism opportunities that would make the trip off the beaten path worth it for established NHLers. Making the effort to get to know northern fans, their communities, and the causes they're passionate about, will go a long way to making those connections permanent.

Have a Northern Ontario night at CTC. In connection with training camp, run a contest offering an all-expenses paid trip to Ottawa for a long weekend and Northern Ontario night at CTC. Those not lucky enough to win the contest can purchase discounted tickets in a dedicated section for the game. Cooperate with northern airlines and Greyhound and Ontario Northland bus companies to provide group fares and increased routes to Ottawa for the weekend. Many northern communities do not have road access, arranging special discounts with local car rental agencies might help. This is another opportunity to reach out to local business. Hotels can offer group rates and incentive coupons for nearby restaurants encourage visitors to spend during their stay. Often, when people from northern and isolated communities visit larger population centres, they take the opportunity to purchase goods too expensive to buy or ship home, or goods that are simply unavailable in their local communities. Working with Ottawa area shopping centres can benefit both visiting northern Sens fans and the local Ottawa business community.

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