Is the game over for the Hockey Canada brand? Maybe, say advertising experts
As companies canceled their sponsorships with Hockey Canada due to its mismanagement of gang–rape allegations and millions of payments to complainants with allegations of sexual misconduct, communications experts aren’t sure the organization can ever recover with advertisers.
« This is probably a textbook case of the worst brand crisis an organization can find itself in, » said Professor Ann Pegoraro, Lang Chair in Sport Management at the University of Guelph. .
Thursday, after weeks of controversy during which sponsors have temporarily suspended support, Hockey Canada has been beaten by big brands that have completely waived agreements with the organization.
Canadian Tire announced it was permanently ending its partnership, while telecommunications giant Telus, grocery chain Sobeys and food delivery app Skip the Dishes also ended some elements of their support.
In recent days, Tim Hortons, Scotiabank and Esso’s parent company, Imperial Oil, have also severed ties with Hockey Canada.
Meanwhile, the federal government increased criticism of the organizationwhile Hockey Quebec said it will no longer transfer funds to the national body.
The brand damage is accumulating so quickly that Pegoraro wonders if Hockey Canada’s very name might soon be too toxic to rehabilitate with sponsorships.
« I think there’s little time left for them to get it back and in limited time, I mean, at best of days, if they don’t make big changes. »
Pegoraro believes the Hockey Canada name could still be a positive association for sponsors if it acts quickly.
But, she says, because he hasn’t installed new leaders and offered what she sees as genuine apologies, « they keep slipping. »
Megan Matthews, communications strategist and co-founder of Instinct Brand Equity in Toronto, says Hockey Canada can’t rehabilitate its brand by resisting change.
« They’re sinking, in a way that almost reinforces the culture that’s bubbling here. Don’t look at a leadership change, don’t look at an internal review that they’re going to publish the results of, » she said. .
« I think they are missing their window of opportunity. »
This week, Acting Board Chair Andrea Skinner said Hockey Canada will not make any changes to its leadership and told a parliamentary committee that the organization had an « excellent reputation ».
Brian Levine, president of Envision Sports & Entertainment, a Toronto-based communications agency that works with elite athletes, businesses and charities, said time is running out for the Hockey Canada name to return.
And not only with former sponsors, but also with future supporters.
“I can’t imagine anyone wanting to start a relationship with Hockey Canada. So that’s where there was certainly serious damage.
The values factor
Levine, Matthews and Pegoraro all said Hockey Canada sponsors are responding to consumer pressure as customers show growing interest in aligning themselves with companies they believe share or promote their values.
« Consumers these days are really interested in ethical brands, brands that have meaning in their community and resonate with them, » Pegoraro explained.
David Chong has worked with Canadian Tire and Scotiabank on marketing projects in the past.
The general manager of MKTG Canada, a Toronto-based sponsorship company, says the big brands had little choice but to cut ties with Hockey Canada.
« Doing nothing about it is almost complicit, » he said. « It’s almost like saying we accept what they did and we’re going to keep funding them.
Potential benefits for the whole sport
Levine says that while companies that make hockey equipment or sports will stick with the game, damages related to Hockey Canada could impact the marketing of the sport as a whole.
With the banks or the phone companies or the car companies, he wonders, « Are they saying, well, there’s another sport in Canada that’s on the rise called soccer, right? ?
He says any company considering a sponsorship deal with a male hockey player will be looking at the athlete more carefully than ever.
« This review will certainly be difficult for agents representing male hockey players. »
Pegoraro, however, thinks the lure of hockey is too strong for many advertisers to resist, but agrees the landscape has changed for sponsorships and endorsements with male players.
« I hope that has changed for the positive for women and for our para-athletes so that they are seen as the places to go. »
Sponsors will have a new power
Pegoraro says Hockey Canada has made many mistakes in handling allegations and complaints about defaulting junior and women’s hockey players.
She also says they made a huge miscalculation by not protecting their sponsors.
« That’s not what a partner does, when you have this kind of relationship where we have millions of dollars, exchanging hands. »
Matthews says if Hockey Canada is revamped and saves its name or a new organization is created with a new name, sponsors will have a greater level of influence in the future than ever before.
“I think if a brand was brave enough to raise their hand and say, ‘Let us help you, let us help you solve this problem’, then Hockey Canada should do whatever it says.
« They’re going to have a real problem with sponsorship for many years to come. »