Ottawa firms look to score big with celebrity endorsement deals

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One of the NHL’s most gifted offensive defencemen, Erik Karlsson is known to hockey aficionados everywhere as the engine that drives the Ottawa Senators’ attack.

But recently, the team’s 26-year-old captain was handed the keys to another impressive piece of machinery – one of the latest models in the fleet at Ottawa’s Mark Motors Porsche dealership.

It’s part of a one-year deal announced earlier this month which will see Mr. Karlsson represent the dealership as its official “Porsche brand ambassador.” According to the dealer, the two-time Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s top blueliner will “attend a couple of exclusive Mark Motors Porsche events and promote the brand on social media.”

While it’s not in the same league as the national deals that superstars such as Sidney Crosby have inked with the likes of Tim Hortons and Gatorade, Mr. Karlsson’s latest off-ice gig shows that local firms see the potential to get plenty of mileage out of associating with one of the city’s few bona fide celebrities who doesn’t work on Parliament Hill.

Mike Mulvey, a marketing professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, says the collaboration between the smooth-skating defenceman from Sweden and the high-performance carmaker from Germany might be as close to a perfect marriage as you’re going to get in the world of celebrity endorsements.

“Karlsson is very self-confident,” Mr. Mulvey says. “He has that ability to accelerate. He has that ability to be nimble and has a mobility that’s unparalleled, pretty much, in the NHL. (He and Porsche) complement each other in this case. It’s a really good match.”  

Mark Motors trumpeted those very qualities in its news release announcing the deal, calling Mr. Karlsson “an exceptional athlete” who “combines top performance in his sport with determination and power.”

Still, experts say there’s no set playbook for figuring out what constitutes the right fit for a high-profile athlete or celebrity such as Mr. Karlsson who is looking to become a pitchman.

“Some businesses think about it a lot more deeply than others,” Mr. Mulvey explains. “The companies that have greater success with endorsements find a person who has characteristics, traits, personality that aligns with the brands.”

The all-star defenceman, he argues, is “a citizen of the world” who projects youth, speed and vitality. In essence, he appeals to exactly the kind of consumer Porsche hopes to attract.

By contrast, Mr. Mulvey says, Senators senior adviser of hockey operations Daniel Alfredsson has a completely different target demographic.

Now retired and a married father of four, the 44-year-old former Senators captain is every bit as much of a local celebrity as his onetime teammate Mr. Karlsson. But does he scream “Porsche” to potential buyers? Mr. Mulvey doesn’t think so.

“He might be better for Volvo,” the professor says, alluding to the Swedish carmaker’s reputation for producing family sedans and station wagons that are dependable but not necessarily flashy – in other words, the same characteristics that spring to mind when most hockey fans think of Mr. Alfredsson.

Ottawa lawyer and NHL player agent Andy Scott agrees both sides in any potential endorsement deal have to do their homework to make sure their values and tastes align.

BRAND AFFINITY

“You don’t want to do something where a player is a nut for BMW but he’s doing a deal with Audi,” he says. “It doesn’t make as much sense. You get to know your client pretty well over the years and you know what their interest level is in various products, various brands, whether it’s fashion, music. It might be cars, it might be fishing.

“You almost have to have a marketing mind for this stuff to think up ideas and different ways you can pitch an athlete to a company.”

Of course, brand affinity isn’t always the be-all and end-all in these arrangements, he adds. “Sometimes, you forget about that if the money makes enough sense.”

Yet most NHLers are never going to make millions off endorsements, no matter how popular they might be in their own communities, says Mr. Scott, who along with business partner Rob Hooper represents NHLers such as Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele and Senators defenceman Marc Methot.

Consequently, he explains, players need to take a good, hard look at whether the time and effort involved in being a celebrity pitchman is really worth it.

“At the end of the day, the unfortunate thing is if your name’s not (Connor) McDavid or Crosby … there’s typically not going to be these global opportunities,” he says. “A lot of guys, it’s in their personality that they just don’t want to be bothered by this stuff. And they’re making so much money (as players), it doesn’t make sense to do something for fifty thousand bucks over two years that’s really going to take some of your time away from the rink.”

In today’s smartphone world, social media savvy also has a huge impact on a player’s potential value as a pitchman, Mr. Scott adds. More and more companies are taking a close look at an athlete’s total number of Twitter and Instagram followers and how much they engage with that audience before closing a deal.

Among Senators, Mr. Karlsson is as much force on social media as he is on the ice, counting 214,000 followers on Twitter and 189,000 more on Instagram – far higher totals than many of the team’s other stars. Centre Kyle Turris, for example, has fewer than 80,000 Twitter followers and a mere 1,193 followers on Instagram, while winger Mark Stone has a Twitter following of 32,600.

“Really, the social media side has become central over the past 10 years to what these companies are asking,” Mr. Scott says. “That’s why guys who have a higher following are more likely to get these deals and more likely to be approached.”

Still, there are exceptions to that rule.

For example, veteran Senators tough guy Chris Neil, a perennial fan favourite, has no Twitter account. Yet Mr. Neil’s low social media profile didn’t stop him from landing an endorsement contract of his own with Ontario-based Oil Changers, a chain of drive-through garages.

The company’s 15-second TV spots featured the rugged winger revealing a gap-toothed grin when told Oil Changers offered “fast, friendly service in nine minutes or less.”

In Mr. Mulvey’s opinion, that particular campaign was a winner through and through.

“To me, that’s genius,” he says. “Partly because I know for a fact Chris Neil’s not going to cost what Karlsson costs. But also, he brings his lunch pail to work. Chris Neil appeals to the blue-collar guy more than almost any other guy in the NHL. He’s true, he’s loyal, he’s a team guy. He stands up for himself. He’s got all those masculine qualities. Changing your oil – there’s nothing pretentious about that. To me, that’s a great match.”

BIG-DATA ANALYTICS

Companies use a host of different metrics to determine if the return on investment in a potential endorsement deal will make it worthwhile, Mr. Mulvey says.

Many firms, he explains, track a player’s appearances and how many potential customers shake hands or meet with the celebrity endorser. More and more, they’re turning to sophisticated big-data analytics tools to calculate the potential ROI on those appearances.

“They’re going to want to see what the uptick is in terms of demand. They could track on a lot of different levels,” he says, including customer visits to the showroom and how many times an athlete shows up to smile for the cameras at company-sponsored events.

But putting a dollar figure on a celebrity pitchman’s worth remains as much art as science, says Mr. Scott, whose firm Octagon represents 95 NHLers and has negotiated endorsement deals for hundreds of clients in a host of sports.

Agents at his company share information and track the history of agreements with various companies as a means of establishing benchmarks and setting precedents for endorsement values.

“I think we have a pretty good idea of what (an athlete’s) market value is and should be before we head into a deal,” he says.

And sometimes, an endorsement gig really is about more than just cold hard cash. Mr. Scott points to Mr. Scheifele’s new contract with the world’s most valuable sports equipment brand as a prime example.

“He just did a deal with Nike,” the agent says. “One thing he said as we got closer to inking the deal was, ‘You know what? I’ve always wanted to be a Nike athlete ever since I was a kid.’ Had it been another company offering a little bit more money, he still would have done the deal with Nike.”