Friday, October 10, 2008

The Birth of a Brand

It isn’t often one gets to sit and watch a vision unfold in the mind of its author, but if you haven’t clicked on “On Frozen Blog” this morning, you owe it to yourself to do so, to get a glimpse…no, a five and a half minute look at how a premium brand is created.

The guys at OFB sat down with The Big Guy to get a take on the season that begins tonight, and in Part 3, one is struck by the original thinking that is being brought to the creation and marketing of “The Washington Capitals” as a premium brand of considerable reach.

When the Capitals lost to Tampa Bay in the 2003 playoffs, even Ted Leonsis, in what looking back seems more emotion than analysis, seemed to be pessimistic about the Caps’ future when he said, “I think the market has spoken and I have some real re-evaluating to do on the kind of investments we're going to make in the team because the city didn't respond. You cannot have a playoff game with 14,000 people with the kind of marketing and consumer focus we've had." It was the beginning of a difficult period for the franchise that suggested it was not a matter of “if,” only a matter of “when” the club would move or fold. Fortunately, the emotion of the spring of 2003 gave way to a more sober look at what needed to be done.

Ted makes the observation that “very infrequently in life…do you get a mulligan, a do over.” It can be fairly said (and you could have counted The Peerless among the doubters two or three years ago) that Ted and the Capitals have made the most of their “do over.” Over the past five years, the Capitals have torn the franchise down to the studs and rebuilt it – in ways both obvious and subtle – so that it is in a position to take its place as a premium “brand” among NHL franchises.

The obvious part is the team’s on-ice makeover. We thought, at the time in 2001, that the Jaromir Jagr trade was something that had to be done. The Capitals were not known as a favored place of employment among NHL players, which made the likelihood of signing a top free agent an iffy prospect. The Caps had to be more creative, and they were, in securing Jagr via trade. We thought that such a move would announce that the Caps would be “players” in the NHL, that they were serious about competing. We hoped that this kind of move would leverage greater interest among players to come to Washington and make them a contender.

Well…that didn’t work.

So, the Caps got around to their “do over.” Big contracts and veterans were moved, and obscure journeymen took their place in what amounted to a marking-time phase as a dismal 2003-2004 season closed. Then, the Caps caught a break. Despite finishing third in the “Alex Ovechkin Sweepstakes,” by virtue of their regular season record, they found they held the winning ticket and selected the franchise cornerstone. But getting Ovechkin was not an end, only a beginning. We’ve maintained – with respect to a Sidney Crosby or an Ovechkin – that unless teams took care to build around such players, they would be hung with the description “best player never to win a Stanley Cup.” The thing is, though, the Caps were thinking bigger. Yes, they used all those picks to select the core of a team that could contend for a decade, but there were also the beginnings of what was being built as the Capitals “brand”…

- A new practice facility in Ballston that is as state-of-the-art as such things get

- A relationship with the Hershey Bears that, due to its proximity and storied history in the American Hockey League, created a larger regional fan base. The anecdotal evidence (and we’re sure the Caps have more empirical support for such an opinion) suggests a large following of Hershey fans who follow the Caps and attend games at the Verizon Center, and a similar large following of Caps fans who watch the Bears and make the trek to Hershey (we’ve done it often).

- What Ted, in the video at OFB, describes as an extension of “The Oriole Way” – a reference to the philosophy once exhibited by the Baltimore Orioles in developing and nurturing talent. The systems and philosophies are a reflection of the “brand.” There is no “Washington” way and a separate “Hershey” way. There is the “Capitals Way,” reflected in coaches and on-ice systems – both in practices and games – that are pursued in unison…down to the minute, as Ted describes it. The term that comes to mind when thinking about this is “the conveyor.” If you look at the Caps, their draft picks, the prospects they obtained from their 2004 “selloff,” you can see a chain of players moving from junior/NCAA/Europe to Hershey (or perhaps, first, South Carolina) to Washington for years to come…Mike Green a couple of years ago, Nicklas Backstrom last year, Chris Bourque and Karl Alzner almost making the cut this year (they’ll stick next year), perhaps a Mathieu Perreault or an Oskar Osala in a couple of years, Anton Gustafsson…John Carlson…Simeon Varlamov…with each passing year, there are (or will be) kids ready to make the jump. It is a seamless conveyor belt of talent and philosophy that stretches ahead as far as the eye can see.

But those are the obvious things, the things fans like us can see. There are also the things we don’t. We won’t pretend to have expertise in business or marketing and the strategies that organizations use to successfully establish a “brand.” But clearly, the Capitals are thinking “strategically” in this regard. Alex Ovechkin as the dynamic face of the organization; the aggressive use of push-the-envelope tools and methods to increase the visibility of the club in the community, on the web, and across the league; the openness to alternative media (the welcoming attitudes toward bloggers, for example, which many other franchises are having trouble accepting), and what one would suspect are a host of strategies that are unfolding behind the scenes in the Caps’ offices. It is a strategy that, on the one hand, says (or as Ted says), “let’s make it so that the players never want to leave,” while on the other hand it is the one that says, “let’s make it so that fans – in the Washington/Hershey region and across North America – always want to follow us.”

In a way, last year was something of a “test marketing” season for the new brand. New uniforms, new attitude, new coach, “rock the red.” This year has the looks of what might be the big “roll out.” These are not your father’s Washington Capitals…they are The Washington Capitals.


Gustafsson said...

Nicely done, Peerless.

Anonymous said...

Very well written. Let us hope that this ride lasts long into the future.

CapsKremlin said...

Great stuff Peerless, I really think the Capitals can be a dominate "brand," in hockey with a few more SE Div. wins and more exposure of key players on the team (i.e. Semin, Backstrom, Laich,)

TJ said...

What a great post. What a great time to be Caps fan.

Very much looking forward to reading your pre- and post-game writeups again this season.

Anonymous said...

An excellent read. Having supported the organization since they were first affiliated with Hershey in the late 70s, I certainly hope this is the group that brings hope the cup.

For as much abuse Ted has taken over the past few years, you have to give him credit for making changes and really turning things around.