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Montreal Canadiens launch a cannonading drive for loyalty

Habs’ executives Geoff Molson and Kevin Gilmour

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

If you're looking to make an impression with a business presentation, it is helpful to have a Jumbotron at hand.

On this preseason afternoon at the Bell Centre in Montreal, big name sponsors, including Air Canada, Coca-Cola, and Molson, have been shepherded to section 113 to hear about what Montreal Canadiens executives are calling their biggest marketing program in a decade.

On Wednesday, the team is launching a loyalty program called Club 1909, which makes sense for a franchise that has some of the most rabid and nostalgic fans in the National Hockey League. But the new club, and its advertising campaign, "Unite the Faithful," is about more than just gathering consumer data or giving fans an incentive to spend more on merchandise – although those are part of the package.

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The Habs' leadership team believes it has the potential to use this new club Club 1909 to reach fans around the world, marketing the Canadiens brand beyond Montreal or even Canada. If it succeeds in growing this digitally-connected community, it could soon be selling a much more expanded proposition to its sponsors.

"As it stands, with the Canadiens and their sponsors, certain restrictions exist. The league permits you to use the logo within a 75-kilometre radius," Kevin Gilmore, executive vice-president and chief operating officer, tells the sponsors gathered at the arena that is the centre of that radius. "So, proud partners of the Montreal Canadiens have a geographical limit.We have the possibility, with Club 1909, to create partnerships without borders."

Sitting in his office after the presentation, Mr. Gilmore explains how: the Canadiens could easily communicate a promotion to its Club 1909 members, without the sponsor involved having to break league rules. For example, the team might hypothetically hold a contest asking members to send in photos of themselves at the farthest point on earth from the Bell Centre, and the farthest fan could win a return ticket to Montreal to see a game – donated by Air Canada. In cases such as this, sponsors could have the benefit of being linked to the Habs brand among a wider audience, even though they are not allowed to advertise that relationship beyond the local limit.

"They can't. And they're not," Mr. Gilmore said. "I've got fans all over the world … we're connecting our partners directly with our fans."

That could mean the ability to sell expanded sponsorships, and to keep sponsors longer.

In year one, the Canadiens expect to attract 500,000 subscribers to the new loyalty program. By year three, they are hoping it will reach one-million. The ambition, eventually, is to have 10-million fans digitally connected to the team. Currently, taking into account social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, the team has 2.4-million connected fans.

"In my grandfather's or my father's case, Twitter didn't exist. Facebook didn't exist. Digital media didn't exist. … There are people from all over the world that want access to us, and want to be part of our organization in some way," said Canadiens owner, president and CEO, Geoff Molson. "I don't think they would have known that 20, even 15 years ago. You didn't know that there was a group in Switzerland that are die-hard Montreal Canadiens fans, even though they were. I think he [Mr. Molson's grandfather Thomas Molson, the first in the family to own the team] would be pretty impressed to see that we're reaching to as many people as possible."

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The team management has been eyeing the example of teams such as Manchester United and the New York Yankees, which have built global brands, and reaped the benefits of greater merchandise sales.

In 2012, the Canadiens made a change to the slogan behind the team's CH logo: the letters stand for Club de Hockey. The new version, Club du Hockey – "hockey's team" – speaks to the brand's iconic, legacy status. It is intended to make the Habs synonymous with the sport itself.

"Our competition on the ice, it's the Boston Bruins, it's the Leafs, it's the Senators in our division," Mr. Gilmore said. "But from a business standpoint, our competition is the New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys, the Lakers, FC Barcelona, Manchester United – legacy teams in their own right that have the global fan base that we have, but we never took the time to look at."

This is especially important in markets such as China, where the growth of the middle class has led to a wider fan base for other professional sports, such as basketball. The NHL has been making efforts to expand hockey's presence there as well, and the Toronto Maple Leafs have been looking into how to expand their brand in China.

"We've talked to a group out of China that wants to work with us on growing the sport of hockey," Mr. Gilmore said. "We'd have to work with the league on that. ... If the Winter Games end up in Beijing, there will be a big push for hockey in China. So why not use our brand along with the league's to help promote the sport in China?"

"I'd love to see P.K. [Subban], Max [Pacioretty], a few of our players in the summer, go over there and do a tour," said Justin Kingsley, creative director with the Habs who has been working on the new campaign. Mr. Kingsley left ad agency Sid Lee – which is currently working on the rebranding of the Toronto Raptors – partly to work with the Canadiens.

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The information that members fill in when joining the program could also be useful for local sponsors in doing more targeted advertising, by location, age, or purchasing habits.

This is all important to the team because its opportunities for growth have hit a plateau: in the late '90s and early 2000s, after moving to the Bell Centre from the old Forum, there were empty seats. The team focused on fixing that problem. Now, the arena has been consistently sold out since 2004. It has saturated the Montreal market.

By knowing more about its fans, and connecting to those who are more far flung, the team is hoping to find more growth. The new campaign will feature online videos starring comedian Jay Baruchel, a die-hard fan.

Membership is free. A membership card, with a piece of game-worn jersey embedded in it, will cost $29.99.

Unlike other loyalty programs, which award points mostly based on purchases, the Habs version will award them for expressions of fandom: tweeting about the team, for example, listening to a game on the radio, or watching the reality show 24CH online. Sponsors who sign on will be able to offer points for buying their products. Among the rewards offered will be a chance for fans to have their names embedded under home ice. The first names will be laid down on a film the next time the ice is replaced, on Jan. 3, and new ones can be added each time the ice is refreshed.

"The opportunity with this program is for us to connect with more fans out of the region of Montreal," said David Bourget, director of sponsorship and events for the Quebec and Atlantic regions at Molson Coors Brewing Co. "There are a lot of opportunities. Our marketing department is at this moment trying to identify what is relevant for our brand.... We would like to do something."

Once the team has a dedicated fan base, Mr. Gilmore envisions the possibility of selling subscribers on a small monthly fee to access exclusive media content.

It could also provide the infrastructure for the team to eventually move toward a mobile ticketing system, Mr. Gilmore said.

"The challenge is to give every single person on the face of the earth who wants to be connected to this building, the opportunity to be," Mr. Gilmore said.

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