A creative director and frustrated hockey fan on how to sell Be-Leaf

—Aside from fixing the on-ice product, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment needs to fix its marketing message for next season if it wants fans to believe in the Leafs again, says Agency59’s Brian Howlett—

Early in the morning after the Toronto Maple Leafs’ game seven playoff collapse Circa 2022, I was cycling my way through a once again brokenhearted city and—in an attempt to clear the bile from my spleen—stopped long enough to post this quick note on LinkedIn:

“The toughest brief in the advertising world as we wake up on this May 15 morning:

Get people to believe in the Toronto Maple Leafs for the 2022-2023 season.”

A nerve was struck, and people were quick to pipe in—not because the post was all that compelling from a marketing angle but, more likely, that LinkedIn’s Leafs fans needed a way to vent their frustration over an all-too familiar narrative. The collective scab had not yet formed.

Most comments touched on how easy it will be for the club to sell tickets whatever happens on the ice, as they have since the dawn of time. “The Leafs have been an entertainment house for decades” said one. “Tickets will cost more… but people will come” said another.

This is true, but my proposition should have been more fully considered. I wasn’t referring to the blind faith and love of Leafs fans—these are the cornerstones of a franchise that is envied by much of the sports world. They have never had to be good to be sinfully profitable.

But should a brand care about something more than sales success? Critics have long argued that MLSE only worries about the bottom line. But I’m not so sure. They must see the rabid exuberance of Raptors fans jumping up and down in Jurassic Park and wonder where the hockey club is headed.

And just because someone loves a team (or a brand) doesn’t mean their passion is permanent and unconditional—their affection can be given to another. In the 2000s, many of us in business loved our Blackberries with the irrational fervour of addicts. How’d that turn out?

I was trying to get at something bigger: Creating genuine belief in the team as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. But how do you sell belief? Because for this current Leaf team, it’s time to get serious. The “Shanaplan” sold hope, but it’s easy to get everyone on the same page when the page is empty. “The Passion That Unites Us All” preached love, but nothing else. Again, a low-risk proposition.

But after being left at the altar in six straight seasons (ed. note: Isn’t it actually 55?), the fan base expects more.

We buy toothpaste because we believe it will prevent cavities. We buy a soft drink because we believe it will quench our thirst. In both cases, there is proof in past performance, and it keeps us coming back for more. But when there is no proof of performance, how do you go about amping up a restless “show-me-the-money” crowd for puck drop in 2022-23?

If I am in the front office of the Toronto Maple Leafs, I am looking for a new story. It will no longer be enough to merchandise the otherworldly talents of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. It’s high noon in Maple Square, and time to convince people that this team is for real. The pre-season messaging can’t be about potential.

The tone needs to change. It’s time to abandon the fresh-faced collegiate enthusiasm and project a more mature, resolute personality. Less corporate-rinsed PR robo-speak and a lot more honesty will go a long way toward connecting with the younger fan who is slipping away—perhaps because they know how good it feels to support a world champion basketball team, and how disappointing it is to cheer a hockey team that can’t win even one playoff round. Brands today score points through transparency.

The core players are no longer babies. They’re men playing in a men’s league, and it’s time to say to the fan, “Yes, we know we’ve done nothing but break your hearts.” Ditch the dreadful Hall & Oates’ goal-scoring anthem, “You Make My Dreams Come True.” A: It’s a lie, and B: It says “We’re just happy to be here.”

Give us something determined and no-nonsense. Grim, even. Try Huey Lewis’ “Working for a Living.” Or keep it Canadian with “Making It Work.” Then, when playoffs hit, switch to Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly” (“Think I need a devil to help me get things right.”)

Assuming that Kyle Dubas and company plug the necessary roster gaps even in the face of their self-inflicted salary-cap woes, the organization top-to-bottom must head into the season believing its time has come. So don’t be shy about it: Milk the tension. Embrace the high stakes. The time for plans is over. It’s one season, and the clock is ticking.

Sure, keep the stars in the ads, but cast them in a new light. They may have conquered the lapdog local media, but they haven’t conquered the hockey world. Give them permission to let us know that they know it, too. And if their hearts aren’t broken along with ours, then we should run them out of town.

We don’t want cute. We don’t want optimistic. For 2022-23, hope doesn’t spring eternal. Give us a new message. Give us truth.

How about evolving the old slogan to something accurate? “The Winning That Unites Us all.”

Or, go all James Bond: “It’s Now Or Never.”

Forget catchy, and plainly state the mission: “One Year To Win.”

Get smartass: “TML. Since 2022.”

Make it about team: “Not Hart. Stanley.”

Or, go with one that fans will happily put on a shirt: “82-0 Is Nothing.”

Brian Howlett is partner and chief creative officer at Toronto creative agency Agency59.