After joining the basic hockey in Canada since 2010, Hyundai is turning a professional.
On Wednesday, it was announced that the South Korean automaker will become the official auto partner of the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association in Canada under a multi-year agreement, starting with the 2022-23 season. Genesis Motors, the luxury line launched by Hyundai Motors in 2016, will become the luxury vehicle partner of the NHL and NHLPA in Canada.
For Hyundai, the partnership was a natural evolution of previous marketing initiatives.
“We’ve been sort of, what I call ‘hockey-adjacent’ for about 12 or 13 years,” said Christine Smith, the director of marketing for Hyundai Auto Canada. “We have had a number of broadcast-based relationships and sponsorships for over a decade. And we worked more on a grassroots level with a program in the mid-2010s called Hyundai Hockey Helpers, which helped kids with dealer financial support to play the sport.”
In 2019 Hyundai Canada stepped it up a notch. “We decided to take our hockey content to the next level and actually do contextually relevant creative things,” said Smith. “When we did that for a few years, combined with some more experiential programming with Rogers Hometown Hockey, we saw an almost immediate rise in brand opinion and exposure from those efforts, so we knew we were on the right track.”
Collaboration opportunities in the automotive sector with major professional sports leagues do not come along every day. Honda has been the NHL’s auto partner in the US since 2007 and that relationship will continue beyond this season. Honda Canada also entered, starting in 2014-15. But at the start of the 2021-2022 season, the Canadian branch announced that it was shifting its marketing priorities in a different direction.
“When we were informed of that decision, it really created an opportunity,” said Kyle McMann, senior vice president of North American business development at the NHL. “An opportunity that we don’t get often, to go to the OEMs and have a conversation and find out what other brands share our values and into the opportunity we could create together.
“We started with our broadcast partner, Rogers, and we’ve worked with them on auto spenders currently involved in the sport. Hyundai was clearly at the top of that list, along with a few others, and had actively participated in hockey media.
“We got through that process and when we first discussed the opportunity with Hyundai – with the agency and then directly with the client – we really started to see a lot of interest and a lot of opportunities where we could really dig into what they have already built their Drivers program and how we could expand it further. It got very exciting, very fast.”
In addition to their continued ad purchase on NHL broadcasts, the new partnership gives Hyundai the ability to activate at NHL events in Canada, including the next Heritage Classic outdoor game. They can also collaborate on grassroots initiatives such as the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero award and the NHLPA’s Goals & Dreams fund to support youth hockey. And they will be able to leverage the significant reach of the NHL and the league’s players on social media.
“We take a really tailored approach to our partnerships,” said McMann.
“They are all, in a sense, centered around category definition and the intellectual property that we manage on an exclusive or non-exclusive basis. From that point on, all the other elements are really meant to be built toward an end goal of what the customer is looking for.
“We fully believe that our partnerships work best when we can bring the faces of our game – the players who are the faces of the NHL brand – into those partnerships through the group player program that the NHLPA operates.
“When we initially sat down with the Hyundai team, 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’s been decades since the players’ association was part of an NHL car partnership.
“What Hyundai is doing in the community, with their hockey parent programs, is such a perfect fit for our players,” said Smith. “They’ve all traveled to tournaments and everything that comes with it as youngsters.”
The NHL now has 32 active franchises, and just over 1,100 players suitable for an NHL game in the 2021-22 season. Smith’s mission is to provide those players with as many marketing opportunities as possible.
“We’re really trying to get as many players involved as possible,” he said. “Either through passive images, which just represent the players in general, but the other part is the active participation – how we get players to the events, create content, meet fans and also interact with Hyundai’s customers.”
Current partnerships with both the NHL and NHLPA include campaigns with Pepsi, Kraft, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and, in the US, MassMutual.
Christine Smith sees the wide reach of the NHL in a vast country as an ideal vehicle to educate potential Hyundai customers about what is happening with a rapidly evolving brand.
“Canada is hockey,” she said. “That’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 television, so there’s really no bigger forum, no bigger platform for us.”
Past experience has shown that it fits well with the Hyundai brand.
“Several years ago, looking back at 2018, 2019, we went through a very dramatic product expansion with new models and new categories in which we hadn’t competed – with models like Kona and Palisade and with the launch of electrified models,” she said. . “Now we have full battery EVs and we’ve recently expanded them with the Ioniq 5, but we’ve also launched a number of hybrids and plug-in hybrids.
“As we expanded that lineup, we needed to raise awareness. First of all, of our more complete SUV lineup, and certainly no better target for it than the hockey moms and dads with all that equipment to carry in their SUVs. As we look forward to more electrified models – again, it’s another big stage from which we can build massive 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 a different place. And seeing that success – we had the test case in our pockets – this partnership was a good idea. We knew we could do something with it.”
As the NHL works to recover revenue lost in the past two years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, McMann says the league is very pleased with the current trajectory of its business side.
“We now have record earnings again,” McMann said. “The sponsorship activities were no exception. We now welcome more than 60 business partners around the world – some North American, some US, some Canada, some international.”