Tennyson wrote, “In the Spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” While that may be true, Spring also turns hockey fans’ thoughts to the playoffs.
When the puck dropped on the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs 16 teams, and their fans, were able to rejoice in the excitement that comes with the chance to be a champion. For some, it’s a feeling that has become so familiar that it’s expected and taken for granted. For others, it’s a new reality and an opportunity for a brand and its community to reach new heights.
In Toronto, the love for the Maple Leafs is well known and documented. The Air Canada Centre (soon to be Scotiabank Arena) is sold out every night from the first game of the season to the last. All over the Greater Toronto Area, you can see fans wearing Leafs gear, and cars are decorated with flags and decals. The brand is strong.
But what happens when the Maple Leafs are good?
To the chagrin of hockey fans in other markets across Canada, a good Maple Leafs team can become the focal point of the entire national discussion. And this year, with only two teams from north of the border in the playoffs (the Winnipeg Jets being the second), there is a bright spotlight on the Leafs.
This success and spotlight is an opportunity that the Maple Leafs brand needs to take advantage of, and they have. In the last two years, the club has improved and shown itself to be an emerging contender. That improvement has come with new stars. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Connor Brown have become fan favourites, and more importantly, bankable stars that the brand can use to draw in brand community members.
For the brand, this renewal and emergence is very important. The Maple Leafs have a long and rich history, which can be (and has been) an asset for the brand in their marketing, storytelling, and in the passing down of fandom from one generation to the next. But until this new wave of success, it was the only real asset they had.
In 2010, Blade worked with Kodiak on marketing materials that both showed off their quality new product line and highlighted their 100th anniversary. That campaign worked because the two pieces came together. Without the current quality, the anniversary is just a nice story. And without the longevity of the brand, the product is just another boot on the shelf. The Maple Leafs are living that same reality right now. The history of the brand makes them special, and the current success makes them relevant.
While the fans in Toronto have been waiting since 1967 for a Stanley Cup championship, Las Vegas natives are getting their first taste of the NHL playoffs as the Golden Knights continue their unpredictably successful inaugural season.
As a brand, the new franchise has novelty and playoff excitement to trade on. That formula is certainly one that can be successful in the short term, but novelty fades. Without sustained success in Las Vegas, the waves of fans and over-the-top excitement are likely to fade as well.
When we talk about brand loyalty in the retail space, words like trust, respect, and quality are often used. The same formula is at play when sports teams are looked at as brands. Yes, there will always be a dedicated base of brand community members that remain loyal through thick and thin. But, the larger, louder, more fairweather members of that brand community demand results in return for their time, money, and loyalty.
In September 2015, we talked about the Maple Leafs brand and brand community with Glenn Gingerich on the Blue Balls episode the Blade’s Brand Edge video series. In the video, Wayne and Glenn talk about the effort of the brand to create a positive experience for fans when the team was not performing at a high level. That effort was important for the brand at the time as they tried not to alienate the brand community completely. It remains relevant now, through customer service, community outreach, charity initiatives, etc., as the team looks to build its brand community and move into a new chapter of their history.
Watch the episode here:
The Maple Leafs share their home arena with the Toronto Raptors, a team with much less history (23 years) and less cultural connection to Canadians (hockey > basketball). However, as a new generation of Raptors fans are coming of age, they are becoming dedicated and loyal members of the brand community because of a current string of sustained success.
The Raptors are currently playing in their fifth straight NBA postseason, they boast two four-time all-star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and they continue to show their fans that they are dedicated to improving and winning. It’s a formula for success that pairs well with a dedication to positive fan experiences (the teams share an ownership group, so it makes sense that the same strategy is in place).
The Maple Leafs, under new management since 2014, have started to show fans the same commitment, and are seeing the rewards for their work in the excitement, support, and overall buy-in from those who are less than the over-dedicated die-hard fans.
From an objective standpoint, it’s important to remember that this is still only the third time in the last 13 seasons that the Toronto Maple Leafs have made the playoffs. That may be a buzzkill reminder for the fans that find themselves engulfed by their current excitement. But it’s also a reminder that the brand has more work to do if they want to become a perennially consistent success not just as a hockey club, but as a brand. As a sports franchise, it’s very easy to curry favour when you’re winning and making the playoffs, especially when it feels new and fresh. But when the new wears off, it’s up to the brand to continue to find reasons for the brand community to stay excited.
So, if the Toronto Maple Leafs want to see more brand community growth, with a higher level of dedication than even they have seen before, they need to keep winning. They already know how to sell tickets, they’ve done a good job (on the whole) of creating a positive fan experience, and they have young stars that they can market to the masses.
If they can add sustained success, and maybe even a Stanley Cup, to that equation, there’s no telling just how successful the Maple Leafs brand could get as they move into their second century.