Thursday, June 16, 2011

Marketing Sense is (un) Common

I'll come right out and say it; people that believe "marketing" is simply common sense stuff are dead wrong. Truly, marketing is a very touchy and counter intuitive discipline. However, it's one that is constantly buried under misinformation and misunderstandings, which lead to misinformed opinions like those which "common sense crowd" hold. Worse yet, they lead to misguided decisions.

I believe that this condition has greatly contributed to a lot of the turmoil that the National Hockey League is currently experiencing. Although the NHL is often praised (and deservedly so) for being a forward-thinking marketers, some critics would argue that its problems are rooted in a decision that was made deep in its past. That decision was to greatly expand the league and to go south and west in order to do so. "Sun Belt Expansion" is phrase strong enough to make die-hard hockey fans from the Canada and the northern United States shiver with cold disgust. For the commissioner who has repeatedly denied it's very existence, the three words likely make his skin crawl as well.

It has been the league's official party line that there was never any direct efforts to expand into the sunny south. Regardless of the league's intentions, arguing over semantics is an absolutely pointless endeavor. Reality tells the only story that matters.

The origins of the sun-soaked expansion plans can be traced to, who else, consultants. A long time ago, the league hired some big name consultancy from New Jersey to analyze the league's business. They drew up what is known as the NHL's "Vision for the 90's." Outlined in the business blueprint is the impetus to expand the league to 30 teams by the end of the decade while making no mention of any specific locals. However, the "vision" plan would recommend expansion into cities that met two rather dumb qualifications; they new markets had to have a strong urban center as well as have municipalities willing to pick up the bill for owners to build new arenas.

Whether or not this implicates expansion into strictly sunny metros, I find it difficult to argue that those two qualifications didn't play right into there hands. What northern city possessed a "strong urban center" without already possessing a hockey team? ... Furthermore, is it making a giant leap to go from "strong urban center" to "growing urban center?" I don't think so. Therefore, anyone with a minor grasp on the population dynamic of America, which had begun shifting south 30 years before the consultants made their recommendation, could decipher what the Vision for the 90's was calling for.

So, logically, the NHL picked up and followed the people who were going south in order to put their product in bigger markets that were growing faster. It's common sense marketing, right?

Or maybe not. Oddly absent from the Vision for the 90's qualifications is a fan base that was thirsty for the game hockey. They neglected that one - instead choosing to force it. Perhaps the NHL was trying to capitalize on the masses of northerners migrating to the south. Although, if brand loyalty is taken into account, fans of those cities aren't as likely to adopt a new team.

Common sensers would argue to market to the biggest group of people; however, marketing sense tells us to target the right group. For the NHL, southerns just aren't that group. The south has unique culture and traditions which don't fit well with the NHL, relegating the sport to oddball status. That's too big of a hurdle for any marketer. In the culture of many northern cities, hockey was already a tradition; and fitting with the culture, where an important custom is they're used to going inside when the weather gets cold.

It's marketing sense that tells us to go for a smaller market and be the only show in town, rather than fight for attention among a larger group. This is the strategy used by Sam Walton, who created the biggest retailer in the world. He don't open his stores in Manhattan. Instead he chose less populated areas, and to be the only store like it for hundreds of miles.

That may finally be the strategy of the NHL again. After struggling for 12 seasons in Atlanta, the franchise is being relocated to the much smaller (and colder) Winnipeg, Manitoba. Interestingly, within 72 hours of tickets being offered, the small town had bought more tickets than the Thrashers would sell all season.

That, along with unending bankruptcy saga of the a hockey franchise in Phoenix Arizona, is providing a bit of vindication to the critics of Sun Belt expansion as well as those who believe in old fashion marketing sensibilities.

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