Tim Hortons takes step back into hockey-related marketing after Hockey Canada scandal – The Globe and Mail

Tim Hortons' new ads will feature players such as para hockey athletes James Dunn and Tyler McGregor, and Olympic gold medallists Sarah Nurse and Marie-Philip Poulin.Handout
In recent months, as Hockey Canada faced widespread criticism for its handling of sexual-assault allegations against several players, the sponsors that channel millions of dollars into the organization had to decide whether to walk away for good.
Some, such as Canadian Tire and Sobeys, did just that. Many others, including Bauer, Bank of Nova Scotia, Tim Hortons, Telus and Esso announced that they would pull support for the men’s programs for the 2022-23 season, but remain sponsors of the organization.
For those brands, advertising their association with the sport is fraught. And their marketing has been taking on a new tone.
On Monday, Tim Hortons will launch a campaign, “let’s up our game,” which highlights a push for more diversity in the sport.
“Should all support for hockey, period, be pulled? That was a conversation we had,” said Hope Bagozzi, Tim Hortons chief marketing officer.
Hockey Canada back in hot seat after review finds evidence of misleading statements
The new ads will feature players such as para hockey athletes James Dunn and Tyler McGregor, and Olympic gold medallists Sarah Nurse and Marie-Philip Poulin, talking about the challenges they’ve faced and their connection to the sport.
“The work that’s being done around women’s hockey and around Paralympics is so important that we didn’t want to adversely affect those groups by pulling all of our sponsorship dollars,” Ms. Bagozzi said. “So we did more of a redirect.”
That means that Tims is still directing sponsorship dollars through Hockey Canada to those initiatives – such as the Hockey Canada Foundation’s “Hockey is Hers” program – though it has paused all funding related to men’s programs for the time being.
The new campaign has been in the works for nearly a year, Ms. Bagozzi said, and will be one of the major hockey-related marketing initiatives for Tim Hortons for the next few months. The company plans to extend the campaign into next year.
In the new ads, players talk about the challenges they’ve faced and their connection to the sport.Handout
It is not the only high-profile sponsor shifting the focus of its marketing. Bank of Nova Scotia, for example, has been running an ad during National Hockey League broadcasts that begins with the words “hockey is” against a black background, with sombre music playing. Adjectives such as “unsafe,” “sexist,” “racist” and “broken” appear at the end of the sentence. The ad then states that “hockey is changing,” before encouraging viewers to visit a website highlighting the bank’s other hockey sponsorships – those focused on diversity and equity in the game.
Such marketing initiatives are a delicate balancing act for sponsors, said Norm O’Reilly, dean of the University of Maine Business School and a specialist in sports marketing and sponsorship.
“If it’s not perceived to be authentic, consumers are smart, and skeptical … and it can backfire,” he said. “ … Is it legitimately helping, putting resources in to make change – and has a marketing benefit too? In an ideal world, it’s both. You’re able to achieve your marketing objectives in a way that helps hockey fix its culture, and make these changes.”
During the women’s world championship in the summer, Bauer Hockey launched an ad campaign around the slogan, “girls deserve equal ice” – an extension of a “brand repositioning” focused on women in the sport that began last year. In addition to advertising, amid the Hockey Canada scandal, it is important that sponsors direct money to women’s hockey and to programs focused on under-represented groups, said Mary-Kay Messier, vice-president of global marketing.
“Our goal is to redirect our investment, so that we can continue to make hockey more inclusive,” Ms. Messier said.
On Friday, for example, the company announced that its partnership with Los Angeles-based organization Black Girl Hockey Club would extend into Canada, with $100,000 in equipment grants to youth players here over four years.
Sponsors have also played a role in putting pressure on Hockey Canada, as the organization has faced questions over its settlement of a lawsuit in which a young woman said she was assaulted by players on the 2018 world juniors team.
The Globe and Mail was first to report that Hockey Canada used player registration fees to build large funds that could be used in sexual-assault claims, without disclosing to participants how their money was used. One fund was used to settle sexual-assault claims while the other was earmarked for matters “including but not limited to sexual abuse.”
After government hearings into the matter in October, a wave of companies – many of whom had already paused their sponsorships – pulled further support and in some cases called for a change in leadership, as did MPs and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Chief executive officer Scott Smith departed the organization soon afterward, and the board announced it would step down in December.
In a governance review of Hockey Canada released this month, retired Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell called on the organization to be more transparent about how it settles lawsuits, and criticized the lack of oversight on how money was used. The report also recommended that a new board should be more diverse.
Ms. Bagozzi, of Tim Hortons, said the company expects that once Hockey Canada has a new board and CEO, they will prioritize the report’s recommendations.
“We’re optimistic that at some point in the future we’ll resume partnership with Hockey Canada,” she said. “ … We’re at this point sitting back, hopeful that significant change and progress will be made.”
Follow Susan Krashinsky Robertson on Twitter: @susinskyOpens in a new window

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