The Winnipeg Jets build a sports brand that connects
The Winnipeg Jets haven’t been able to bring the Stanley Cup home—yet—but nearly 11 years after being relaunched in the Manitoba capital, its brand has been an unequivocal winner.
Dormant since the original team relocated to the Arizona desert in 1996, the Jets 2.0 era began at the 2011 Entry Draft in St. Paul, Minnesota, nearly four weeks after True North Sports & Entertainment announced their purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers.
It had to be the Jets
In the interim, team co-owner Mark Chipman and his braintrust weighed a number of monikers—reportedly including Moose, Polar Bears and Falcons—but in the end settled on the name that had been synonymous with professional hockey in Winnipeg since 1972.
“In the end,” Chipman said at the time, “Winnipeg Jets has got so much equity in it, well deserved equity. It just seemed right to take it forward and not mess around with it.” A few generations of hockey fans in Manitoba and beyond agreed.
Derrick Coupland, founder of Coupland & Co., a Winnipeg-based branding consultancy, says True North’s decision has been proven correct.
“Calling the team the ‘Jets’ created the immediate connection. ‘The Jets are back!’ They flipped on all of those lights that had been dark for years,” he says. “They have immediately and consistently embedded the brand in the community. They have created a sense of fan ownership, pride and possession. That’s a really difficult formula to get right. It’s so easy to go offside and be viewed as inauthentic or inconsistent.”
The fact that paying fans shout out “True North” during the singing of “O Canada” before every home game is an “amazing” endorsement, Coupland says.
“Does anything like this happen anywhere else in pro sports? It’s all because True North brought the Jets home,” he says.
The good old days
True North’s strong brand game also enabled it to relaunch the retro logo made famous by Bobby Hull and Dale Hawerchuk with its “Heritage Classic” jerseys a few years ago. “They are correct in pulling forward that sense of nostalgia, which is authentic because they’re still the Jets. If they weren’t the Jets, all of that history would have been lost, they would have had to start fresh,” Coupland says.
Jeff Swystun, a marketing consultant based in Mont Tremblant, Quebec, agrees, calling the retro relaunch “super brilliant.” “You want to command the brand assets. The original logo is a classic. It’s not only smart marketing but it tugs at the heart strings,” he says.
Successful sports brands, such as soccer’s Manchester United and the Toronto Maple Leafs, have a certain je ne sais quoi, according to Swystun. “There’s a valuation and a revenue model that has an almost Harry Potter magic to it. It doesn’t make any sense but somehow it does,” he says.
“Sure, you want a winning team, but like the Leafs have shown, you don’t have to do well in the playoffs to be a highly-valued franchise. Passion is at the heart of every sport. It’s how that passion is directed that accrues value and equity.”
The difficulty with many brands is a sense of complacency can set in so managing one over the long term can be particularly challenging. The Jets, however, have proven that they’ve been able to maintain their connection with the community.
“That’s the hard part, staying relevant with your customer base over time. ‘How do we energize the brand and avoid going stale?’ It’s great if you’re winning all the time, but that’s a tough gamble,” Coupland says.
Bumps in the road
Every brand faces adversity and the Jets have been no exception. The recent revelations of a sexual abuse scandal with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, at which time Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff was in the Blackhawks front office, have not resulted in any lasting damage to the brand. (Cheveldayoff was cleared of any wrongdoing by the NHL.)
“The Jets responded quickly and publicly, and the response was accepted. These are tests of reputation and reputation equals brand,” Coupland says.
Getting rid of problematic players—hello, Evander Kane—is another test that the Jets have passed.
“You want the players on the team to fit the value set that’s consistent with the reputation the team is trying to build. If they don’t, the team has demonstrated they’re willing to move them out of the organization. These are decisions consistent with a value set. That’s exactly how you manage a brand,” he says.