Canadiens biggest marketing challenge
Habs push highlights PR's growing role in the marketing mix

Montreal Marketing Association lunches are quiet affairs as media events go. The same three or four journalists show up, most of us freelancers. Some of us are there just for a crack at the free pork chops.

But last week when Pierre Ladouceur, vice-president (marketing and sales) of the Montreal Canadiens, addressed the event, he dragged with him a group of slick, but unsavory looking characters: the sports press.

The event typifies a growing trend in marketing: the increasing importance of public relations in the marketing process. Two dozen journalists, from print, radio and four television stations came to watch Ladouceur talk to 200 executives about marketing strategy.

"That's not the half of it," said Donald Beauchamp, the club's director of communications told me later. "At the same time (he) was speaking, another 25 journalists were attending a team practice at the Molson Centre."

PR is becoming more important because people are increasingly immune to many marketing techniques. There is so much advertising out there, it is almost impossible to break through the clutter. At the same time with cheap broadcast, communications and production technology, news coverage has been increasing dramatically.

Getting a company's name in the news has big advantages over advertising. It costs nothing, and people actually look for news stories, but they avoid ads. Ad agencies are wising up to this, and many, including Cossette Communication Group -- which does work for the Habs -- have bought or started PR firms.

Ladouceur claims that the Canadians are first and foremost a hockey club. But whether or not they see themselves as a business, they sure market themselves as one. Notable in his remarks was a focus on non-hockey aspects of his marketing program.

Ladouceur stated that the organization's goal is to finish in the top third of the league. But the rest of his talk was devoted to things like the music being played at the start of the game, humorous video vignettes played on the scoreboard during penalties and the team's charitable events schedule.

"Our challenge is to bring players closer to the fans," Ladouceur said. But "it's hard for a fan to identify with a 21-year old kid who makes $3 million a year." The Canadiens are trying to make team members seem more down to earth. In recent promo shots Brian Savage is featured topless with his new baby.

Ladouceur also demonstrated the team's new CD-ROM Christmas cards. These feature players joking and giving fans season's greetings in various languages. "They're just big babies," said Ladouceur beaming. "Rich, but big babies."

Ladouceur's audience, who paid up to $75 each to attend, clearly enjoyed the spiel - occasionally even clapping at his gimmicks. This despite the fact they could have easily read about his plans in any number of publications (including the Gazette) during the last couple of weeks. But interest is so high nobody seemed to mind.

As he spoke, the sports media yawned its way through a presentation whose contents most knew backwards and forwards. Many were hoping that Ladouceur would give them a scrap of useful information, possibly about an eventual buyer for the club.

To give an idea of how important public relations are, consider the Canadians dilemma. Their marketing goal is to fill the increasing number of empty seats in the blue section. Selling 2,000 more seats for each of their 41 home games next year at an average price of $25 would bring them an additional $2 million in revenue.

Now compare that to the club's biggest public relations challenge: the $12 million the team pays in municipal taxes each year to the city of Montreal. That tax bill -- the highest in the NHL -- is more than all of the other Canadian teams pay combined. According to a spokesman at Molson, the total is also three times higher than all U.S. cities pay, since most are exempt from municipal taxes.

So not only do the Canadiens have to deal with the cheap dollar and high income taxes when competing with U.S. teams, they also start $12 million in the hole - each year. A good way to judge what that kind of money buys is to follow how the Penguins improve when Mario Lemieux returns. Now imagine trying to compete in a league, where almost every team starts with a Mario Lemieux -- or players with equivalent salaries - except one.

Public- and media-relations pros operate behind the scenes to massage media, government officials and other decision-makers to get their company seen in the best possible light. Their biggest challenge is to convince the Bourque administration - either directly or indirectly - to bring municipal taxes down to earth.

The stakes are huge. Let's say that by a combination cajoling, spinning media, wining and dining government officials, and threatening through lawyers, the Habs manage to convince the city to cut their tax bill in half.

This would save the team $6 million a year, a total that makes revenue from those 2,000 empty seats seem like pocket change. It's no wonder that the public relations function is growing in importance.

That means Beauchamp's biggest challenge is to convince some of those journalists who follow the Habs to stop asking the coach why the team isn't doing so hot, and to ask mayor Bourque instead.

Photo caption: The Canadiens have marketing their team by making players like Brian Savage seem more down to earth.

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