The best beer on ice

When it comes to hockey and sponsorship in Canada, no two brands have dropped the mitts more than Molson (Molson Coors) and Labatt (Budweiser). Beer and hockey in Canada go hand-in-hand, and because of this, winning over thirsty fans of the national sport has become big business.

After over a decade as the NHL’s official beer, Labatt lost the rights to be a sponsor of the NHL in 2011 after a public legal battle involving the league and Molson Coors. With Labatt out of the picture, Molson Coors signed a massive $375M, 7-year deal with the NHL. Reportedly the biggest sponsorship deal in Canada, the North American agreement with brewers Molson Coors (in Canada) and MillerCoors (in the States) sees the sister companies heavily represented across the NHL calendar, including money for TV ads and smaller deals with individual teams.

That left Labatt and Budweiser scrambling to diversify and find alternate ways to grow their sports portfolio in Canada and stay top-of-mind with hockey-mad Canadians. And with scrambling comes creativity. After a bevy of impressive moves in the sponsorship hockey arena over the past 24 months, I’m lead to believe that losing the NHL deal may have been a blessing in disguise for the company.

Case in point:

1. Grassroots

If you can’t connect with hockey fans at the big leagues, connect with them at the next best place: the beer leagues. During the 2012 Super Bowl broadcast, Labatt aired this TV ad:

The spot went viral netting more than 4 million views on YouTube.

2. Hockey Night in Canada

In 2013, Labatt started to find ways to sideswipe the NHL and Molson in their own arena. The first strike came after the NHL lockout in early 2013 with Labatt signing a deal with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada and Coach’s Corner. The multi-year deal got the brand on Hockey Night in Canada during the Coach’s Corner segment with Don Cherry. The deal also included an appearance in two other parts of the broadcast and as a sponsor of a new package of digital extras the network offers on computers and mobile devices.

3. NHLPA

The latest strike came this summer with Budweiser signing a multi-season deal with the NHLPA. The deal allows Budweiser to use the NHLPA’s trademarks and leverage NHL players for both traditional advertising and experiential executions.

To kick the deal off, Budweiser leveraged their two hockey deals to get in front of Canadian hockey fans during the playoffs. This involved a one-off TV spot featuring Drew Doughty that aired during a Coach’s Corner segment in June. Talk about a win-win.

So after seeing Labatt find creative ways to connect with NHL hockey fans without having to be the official beer of the league, I can’t see how Molson Coors is not rethinking this one. While I don’t know the dollar values behind Labatt’s deals with Hockey Night in Canada and the NHLPA, it’s safe to bet that it’s significantly less than Molson’s deal with the NHL. And yet, Labatt is still finding a way to be on this country’s biggest hockey broadcast (Hockey Night in Canada) and are affiliated with some of the game’s biggest stars – all while having a lot more flexibility with their sponsorship budget. Add to all of this that Labatt has exclusive sponsorship deals with three of Canada’s seven NHL teams: the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, and Winnipeg Jets, which in my opinion are more lucrative in those NHL markets (ex. if I live in Winnipeg, seeing the “Official beer of the Winnipeg Jets” means more to me than “Official beer of the NHL”).

From an outsider’s perspective, this partnership with the NHL appears to be Molson’s big play to gain market share in Canada. For me, the big bonus of the company’s partnership with the NHL is the ability to spike volume. By leveraging the NHL brand, Molson can do unique giveaways on packaging at Point-of-Sale (free trip to Stanley Cup Finals, free NHL T-shirt giveaways, etc.). However, the execution falls on Molson (not the NHL) and it’s easy for Labatt to counter this. All they have to do is throw a concert or do a “Twist for a 6-pack” and the damage is mitigated. And the proof is in the numbers as the company continued to sit behind Labatt in market share as of early 2013.  With so much money tied up in the NHL deal, it would seem that their hands are a little tied when it comes to seeking other big sports opportunities to help close that gap.

Finally, if you’re the NHL, this has to be concerning. If it’s so easy for Labatt to leverage other hockey assets like the NHLPA to promote its brand to hockey fans, who cares if you’re the official beer of the NHL. It could be argued that fans have more of a connection with individual players anyway. That’s why player sponsorship deals are a thing. And right now, all evidence shows that Labatt’s creativity in the arena is helping them win the beer marketing wars when it comes to hockey in Canada.

Adam Puddicombe

Adam Puddicombe is a digital marketing professional who, by day, works in the ad agency world, and by night, covers the intersection of Canadian sports, media, and technology. Adam holds a degree in commerce, with a focus in marketing, and previously worked for Hockey Night in Canada’s Play On! and the St. John’s Fog Devils of the QMJHL. Follow him on Twitter @adampuddicombe.