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After aligning with grassroots hockey in Canada since 2010, Hyundai is turning pro.
Wednesday, it was announced that the South Korean automaker will become the official automotive partner of the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association in Canada under a multiyear agreement, starting with the 2022-23 season. Genesis Motors, the luxury line launched by Hyundai Motors in 2016, will become the NHL and NHLPA’s luxury automotive partner in Canada.
For Hyundai, the partnership was a natural evolution from previous marketing initiatives.
“We’ve been, kind of, what I call ‘hockey-adjacent’ for approximately 12 or 13 years,” said Christine Smith, the director of marketing for Hyundai Auto Canada. “We’ve had a number of broadcast-based relationships and sponsorships for over a decade now. And we were operating at more of a grassroots level with a program in the mid-2010s called Hyundai Hockey Helpers, that helped kids with some financial support raised by dealers to be able to play the sport.”
In 2019, Hyundai Canada stepped things up a notch. “We decided to take our hockey content to the next level and actually do contextually relevant creative,” Smith said. “Upon doing that for a few years, combined with some more experiential programming with Rogers Hometown Hockey, we saw a lift in brand opinion and consideration almost immediately from those efforts. So we knew we were on the right path.”
Automotive partnership opportunities with major professional sports leagues don’t come along every day. Honda has been the NHL’s automotive partner in the U.S. since 2007, and that relationship will continue after this season. Honda Canada also joined in, starting in 2014-15. But at the beginning of the 2021-22 season, the Canadian arm served notice that it was shifting its marketing priorities in a different direction.
“When we were notified of that decision, it really created an opportunity,” said Kyle McMann, the NHL’s senior vice president of North American business development. “An opportunity we don’t get very often, to go to the OEMs and have a conversation and find what other brands share our values and share in the opportunity that we could create together.
“We started with with our broadcast partner, Rogers, and we worked with them on auto spenders that were currently engaged in the sport. Hyundai was obviously at the top of that list, along with a few others, and had been active participants in hockey media.
“We kind of got through that process, and when we first discussed the opportunity with Hyundai — with the agency, and then directly the client — we started to really see a lot of interest and a lot of opportunities where we could really sink into what they’ve already built around their Drivers program and how we could extend that further. It got really exciting, really fast.”
As well as their continuing ad buy on NHL broadcasts, the new partnership will give Hyundai the opportunity to activate at NHL events in Canada, including the next Heritage Classic outdoor game. They’ll also be able to collaborate on grassroots initiatives like the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero award and the NHLPA’s Goals & Dreams fund in support of youth hockey. And they’ll be able to harness the considerable reach of the NHL and the league’s players on social media.
“We take a really bespoke approach to our partnerships,” McMann said.
“They all center, in some ways, around category definition and the intellectual property that we control either on an exclusive or non-exclusive basis. From that point forward, all of the other elements are really meant to be built towards an end goal of what the client is looking for.
“We fully believe that our partnerships work best when we can bring the faces of our game — the players that are the faces of the NHL brand — into those partnerships through the group player program that the NHLPA controls.
“When we sat down initially with the team at Hyundai, we did a check-in. We wanted to see if they felt the same way and they absolutely did.”
According to the NHLPA’s senior director of marketing and community relations, Devin Smith, it has been decades since the players’ association was part of an NHL automotive partnership.
“What Hyundai does in the community, with their programs with hockey parents, it’s such a perfect fit with our players,” Smith said. “All of them have been travelling, as youngsters, to tournaments, and all that comes with that.”
The NHL now has 32 active franchises, and just over 1,100 players suited up for an NHL game in the 2021-22 season. Smith’s mission is to help deliver as many marketing opportunities to those players as he can.
“We really try to get as many players involved as possible,” he said. “Either through passive imagery, just representing the players on the whole, but then the other part is the active participation — how we get players out to the events, creating content, meeting fans and interacting with Hyundai’s customers as well.”
Current partnerships involving both the NHL and the NHLPA include campaigns with Pepsi, Kraft, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and, in the U.S., MassMutual.
Christine Smith sees the NHL’s broad reach across a vast country as an ideal vehicle to inform potential Hyundai customers what’s happening with a rapidly evolving brand.
“Canada is hockey,” she said. “It’s where the biggest audience is. If you want to find a Canadian, hockey is kind of the place to start. Seventy-three percent of Canadians watch the NHL on broadcast television, so there is really no bigger forum, no bigger platform for us.”
Past experience has shown a good fit for the Hyundai brand.
“A number of years ago, as we look back at 2018, 2019, we were going through a very dramatic product expansion with new models and new categories that we hadn’t competed in — with models like Kona and Palisade and with the launch of electrified models,” she said. “Now, we have full-battery EVs and we’ve expanded that with the Ioniq 5 most recently, but we also have launched a number of hybrids and plug-in hybrids.
“As we were expanding that lineup, we needed to drive awareness. First of all, of our more complete SUV lineup, and certainly no better target for that than the hockey moms and dads with all that equipment to carry in their SUVs. Now, as we look forward toward more electrified models — again, it’s another large stage from which we can build huge awareness.
“A platform is only as good as you can do something with it. So first, to drive the expansion of our SUV network, hockey provided a really meaningful place where we could do that well. Now, with electrification, we see it as another place. And because we’ve seen that success — we had the test case in our pockets — this partnership was kind of a no-brainer. We knew we could do something with it.”
As the NHL works to recover revenues lost over the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, McMann says the league is very pleased with the current trajectory of its business side.
“We’re now back to record revenues,” McMann said. “The sponsorship business has been no exception to it. We’re now welcoming in over 60 corporate partners across the world — some North American, some U.S., some Canada, some international.”