At 7:26 p.m. on June 28, the Chicago Blackhawks made what had been the worst-kept secret in the hockey world official, selecting North Vancouver native Connor Bedard with the first overall pick in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft.
Watching from the stands in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena as Bedard celebrated with his family was Hyundai Canada’s director of marketing, Christine Smith, who had inked the 17-year-old superstar-in-waiting to a four-year sponsorship agreement earlier this year.
The deal felt like a natural next step for Hyundai after becoming the NHL’s official auto sponsor last year, launching the “Made for those who drive hockey” platform with a specific goal of connecting with hockey families.
For Smith, hearing Bedard’s name called quelled some of the (mild) anxiety that had been building in the lead-up to the draft. While Bedard has had the “generational” tag attached to him for some time, strange things can sometimes happen on the draft floor.
Smith, though, had spent some time with the Bedard family on the morning of the draft, and the youngster, who famously deflected questions about himself after his standout performance for Team Canada at the IIHF World Juniors earlier this year, never betrayed any expectations about where in the draft he might go.
“He was very humble [and said] ‘I hope it happens, but anything can happen and I’m not going to be over-confident about it,'” said Smith. “I think that just speaks to who he is as a person, who his family are, and that for me cemented that it was the right deal, regardless of what happened the night of.”
Undoubtedly, a big part of signing Bedard is about harnessing some of the buzz around the hottest NHL prospect in nearly a decade. But Smith said that Bedard and his family also align with how the company is positioning the brand, both in relation to the NHL and the game itself.
“We don’t want it be just a Hyundai hockey story; we want to bring something to the table,” she explained. “When we think about Hyundai and hockey, that’s where we belong. We’re not on the ice or in the change room, we’re helping get players and officials and parents to and from the game safely.”
The first Hyundai marketing featuring Bedard (and his parents) arrived at 7:56 p.m., just 30 minutes after Blackhawks GM Kyle Davidson called his name.
Its immediacy meant that the spot, developed by Hyundai’s agency Innocean Canada in close collaboration with Rogers Sports and Media, was a pretty standard affair: A series of family snapshots showing Bedard on the path to becoming a probable NHL superstar. But it was capped off with fresh video of him hugging his family just minutes earlier, followed by the message “Congratulations, Connor. And welcome to the Hyundai family.”
While the spot appeared simple in its presentation, it wasn’t simple in its execution, with Innocean and Rogers working hand-in-hand to capture the right visuals to insert into the closing seconds and have the spot ready for air within minutes of Bedard’s name being called.
“We said ‘Listen, we don’t want the big moment on stage because that’s not what we’re about. We’re about him and the people who have helped him, so we wanted shots of him getting congratulated and hugged by members of his family in the biggest moment of his life,’ and they knocked it out of the park,” said Smith. “They even went above and beyond by cutting in two shots, which added some great tempo to the piece.
“Working with our NHL partners, Rogers, and the entire Bedard family, we were excited to have the opportunity to create a celebratory spot to welcome Connor to the Hyundai team and the NHL in real time…as in mere minutes after his name was called,” said Innocean’s executive creative director Ian Mackellar in a statement to The Message.
“It was very emotional to see all our hard work come together without a hitch, but not nearly as emotional as seeing a 17-year-old kid realizing his dream.”
The spot ran just once during the telecast, although it’s currently the pinned tweet on the automaker’s Twitter account, and is housed on its YouTube channel. “It will live on in digital for the next week or so, but it was really just a moment in time,” said Smith.
Canadians can expect to see a whole lot more of Bedard in the brand’s marketing going forward, however, with the company planning to make him the centrepiece of the multi-year sponsorship deal it signed with the NHL and the NHLPA last year.
The first year of the the sponsorship agreement included two to three minutes of ad inventory in about half of the televised games, as well as third period ownership of Hockey Night in Canada telecasts, homepage takeovers on NHL.com, digital billboards, and the Hyundai logo digitally placed on the ice during telecasts.
Hyundai had done what Smith described as “hockey-adjacent” work prior to the NHL/NHLPA sponsorship through its “Hyundai Hockey Helpers” platform, but launched the “Made for those who drive hockey” platform last year as a way of re-introducing itself on what she described as the “big stage” made possible by its sponsorship.
Early indications from the just-concluded NHL season produced “positive movement” in key metrics such as brand awareness, opinion and preference. “We saw strong lift in things like website traffic, and interest in the brand. And when you work in a franchise business, network enthusiasm is an important metric, and the network has been really supportive and looking at ways to activate hockey locally.”
Smith said that future plans around the sponsorship with revolve around “more human-connected stories” about why and how Hyundai wants to be associated with hockey in Canada. Its focus will be on those who have both literally and figuratively driven those players to success, with Bedard as the obvious linchpin.
“There are any number of stories we can tell, and we will tell some different people stories over the course of the next year or two, but we thought ‘Let’s partner with someone that we can build this with together,'” said Smith. “When we thought about who that could be, we all kept coming back to Connor.
“What better story to [emphasize] that idea of ‘Made for those who drive hockey’ than someone whose career is just starting at that next level,” said Smith. “He’s beginning that next phase, but he’s incredibly appreciative of all the people who have helped him get where he is, especially his family.”
Smith wouldn’t divulge particular creative strategies, saying only that the brand plans to engage in some “emotional” and “fun” storytelling. “We’re going to show up in hockey next year in an even bigger way,” she said. “We want to make it even stronger and more impactful, and I think that with the type of work we’re developing right now, we’re going to do that.”
Hyundai, meanwhile, is one of several brands that have inked Bedard to sponsorship deals. He has also partnered with the sports nutrition brand BioSteel, which plans to feature him alongside #TeamBioSteel teammate Connor McDavid at the pre-season BioSteel NHL Camp, and with Vancouver-based Lululemon.