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Penguins out to defy the ordinary

| Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009

Penguins president David Morehouse had a feeling in the summer of 2007 that extraordinary times were ahead. The owners wanted to transform the hockey franchise's newfound buzz into an identity that could take root regionally -- much like the iconic Steelers, who have become synonymous with Western Pennsylvania.

"I really thought we'd wrap ourselves in this combination of working-class, blue-collar toughness qualities about Pittsburgh that fans around the world associate with the Steelers," said Morehouse, 48, a Beechview native who became team president in 2007. "But people don't think of us as that ordinary idea of Pittsburgh."

Actually, nothing was ordinary about a process that had Pittsburgh fans comparing the Penguins, Steelers and the Pirates in terms of ... cars.

"That was my favorite question: What kind of car is (the team)?" Morehouse said about hundreds of questions posed by Stellus Consulting, the Minnesota company hired to help the Penguins brand its National Hockey League franchise.

Interviews revealed consumers likened the team to a Jaguar -- sleek, fast and exotic. The Steelers were a Hummer -- tough, rugged and dominating.

"As odd as it may sound, your brand has nothing to do with your players, your ownership or your arena," said Corky Hall, Stellus CEO. "It's only about the consumers' perception of everything and the other choices they have."

The team's new marketing campaign, "Defy Ordinary," was derived from information gathered by Stellus. But the Penguins didn't pony up nearly $500,000 to create a clever phrase that could be discarded at any point.

That would defeat the purpose of branding, which is becoming all the rage in professional sports.

"Teams have figured out that marketing is a broader concept and includes branding within it," said Vassilis Dalakas, associate professor of marketing at Cal State San Marcos. "A clearly defined image of who you are is important in sports, and the essence of branding is creating that so-called identity.

"The best sports teams realize that the ultimate goal is keeping fans interested over the long run."

Nurturing a Penguins Nation

Interest in the Penguins never has been higher. They have earned record local TV ratings, sold out 129 consecutive home games and lead the NHL in merchandise sales.

But "things can change that quick," Hall said.

Only five years ago, average attendance at 16,000-capacity Mellon Arena was fewer than 12,000. The team was losing. And superstar Mario Lemieux, who agreed to become owner to bring the franchise out of bankruptcy, questioned whether the team had a future in Pittsburgh because politicians would not follow through on promises to build a new hockey arena.

Next season, the Stanley Cup champions will move into Consol Energy Center, a $320 million home built largely with public money. But the team hopes its fans will embrace the Penguins like the Steelers Nation clings to the Black and Gold.

"We started this research after a year when the Steelers missed the playoffs, and I can still remember the puzzled look on one lady's face when she was told they'd missed the playoffs," Penguins vice president of communications Tom McMillan said.

Added Morehouse: "She knew every detail about the coaching change and players' contracts, but she didn't know the Steelers missed the playoffs. That's a great place to be, when fans know every little detail about your team and think you made the playoffs when you didn't."

The Steelers have sold out every home game since 1972. Despite playing in one of the NFL's smaller markets, the sales of Steelers merchandise always ranks near the top of the NFL. Team officials declined to comment for this story.

Making the connection

The Pirates' chief marketing officer, Lou DePaoli, said the best sports franchises understand fans' emotional connection.

"It's what they believe deep down. For us, fans have said, 'It's a black hat with a gold P on it, and don't ever change that,' " he said, noting results from the Pirates' work with North Carolina-based Brandthink in 2007. "There's a difference between branding and a slogan or a campaign. Branding, or brand architecture, is your DNA -- and it shouldn't change over time."

The time to brand was perfect for the Penguins, who believed in 2007 that Pittsburgh was "on the tip of becoming a great hockey town," Morehouse said.

To push it over the top, he said the Penguins are pumping money and coordination efforts into youth hockey programs, including a focus on teaching the sport to fans that Stellus' research showed "liked the Penguins, but didn't know what a hockey play is."

"A great move," Dalakas said. "If you have children and their mothers on-board, the possibilities for your brand's reach are endless."

The Penguins connect with fans in myriad ways, including the use of social media, players delivering season tickets and even discounting tickets on game nights for college students.

Stellus proved a perfect partner for the Penguins, Morehouse said, because it does not specialize in sports branding and/or marketing, though it's worked with the NHL's Minnesota Wild and NFL's Seattle Seahawks. Other clients include Nestle Ice Cream, Burger King and KitchenAid.

Anaheim Ducks chief marketing officer Bob Wagner said pro sports teams often fall into the trap of insulating themselves from the outside world, where they compete for consumers' time, money and loyalty.

"Hockey fans are very loyal, but they can't be the only consumers you listen to," he said. "Even in the traditional hockey markets, and I'd put Pittsburgh in that class as one of the most successful, there are things to learn from outside the hockey world."

Youthful following

A key in Stellus' approach with the Penguins was information -- Morehouse called it "metaphorical research" -- gleaned from groups that included Penguins' current and former season-ticket holders; former players; hockey fans; and, at Morehouse's request, fans who followed the team but neither the NHL nor hockey as a sport.

"People are used to numerical evidence, and Corky is going on about what people feel, smell and see when your product is mentioned," said Chuck Albrecht, president of Northern Tools, which has worked with Stellus since 1999.

Stellus' research showed Penguins fans trended younger than those of the Steelers and Pirates. But young as it applied to the Penguins was a state of being, not age.

"It was clear early on there were people of all ages living different lives in Pittsburgh, at least different from what I'd thought of Pittsburgh," Hall said. "Their world was technology and education and this sense of energy -- all parts of this feeling of a new Pittsburgh people described to us when talking about the Penguins.

"I told David, 'The Penguins need to fit into those peoples' lives, and it's a completely different world than what you would have guessed.' "

Marketing success

Many of the Penguins' most popular marketing moves were cultivated from suggestions generated during two years of brand-identification research, in addition to successful examples by other teams. The notable moves:

• Designating select home games to continue Student Rush Program for discounted tickets to area college/high-school students;

• Broadcasting Stanley Cup Playoff games on large outdoor screen at Mellon Arena;

• Expanding the official Web site to include daily blogs, video from dressing-room interviews with players/coaches and Pens TV segments;

• Joining early group of NHL clubs in creation of a Ticket Exchange Program for ticket-holders looking to purchase or sell seats in a controlled environment;

• Wearing alternate uniforms with original franchise colors: baby blue, navy blue and white;

• Having players deliver season-ticket packages to fans in their homes;

• Establishing a Text Message Alert system to relay team news to fans on cell phones;

• Developing a high-definition radio channel for team-produced programming, including archival audio of games.

Source: Pittsburgh Penguins

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