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'Cupnappers' help NHL find new commercial voice

by Davis Harper

Like the majority of New York Rangers fans this time of year, Nick Kroll had been dreaming about Mark Messier lifting the Stanley Cup in 1994.

"I had a dream one night that Mark Messier came to me and he was holding the Stanley Cup, the '94 Cup," Kroll said. "It was like when I was kid, but I was my age now. And he said to me, 'Go find this, and take this.'"

With a little help from the NHL and NBC, Kroll did exactly as The Captain commanded. The comedian and actor teamed with longtime comedy cohorts Seth Morris and Charlie Sanders to "lift" the Cup from its velvet-lined case as part of a viral video released on April Fools' Day to promote the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The five-minute piece, filmed in the style of a comedy short and released only on the NBC Sports YouTube channel, begins with network personalities like David Gregory and Jim Cramer breaking the news that the most recognizable trophy in sports has been stolen. Soon after, the feed cuts to the bumbling captors, who immediately tip off their location to the authorities and spend the ensuing days making ransom demands which include everything from an NHL roster spot for Kroll to a lock of Jaromir Jagr's hair. Before it's all over, Kroll and his minions are eating fondue out of the chalice and holding the trophy at gunpoint.

After being teased online and in movie cinemas, the full "Cupnappers" video made an immediate splash upon its full release. Now, with the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs winding to a close, the video has racked up 1.7 million views and counting.

Whatever its current popularity, though, "Cupnappers" will remain a touchstone long after the deserving champion lifts the Stanley Cup for real in June. That's because the spoof signals a new avenue by which the NHL, along with exclusive broadcast partner NBC, can market its postseason.

To this point, the League's marketing department has focused on the hard-nosed and historic nature of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The popular "History Will Be Made "campaign of 2010 and 2011, which won a host of awards and remains a favorite among die-hard fans, traded on this nostalgia to great effect. Recent campaigns, with taglines like "Because It's The Cup" and "One Goal," are rooted in the hard-hitting, glorification-of-the-grind sincerity of the playoffs.

"Cupnappers," on the other hand, turns this tone of advertising on its ear. The video doesn't just introduce humor to an otherwise stoic and solemn series of ads, it hits the audience over the head with irreverence and self-deprecation.

"For us, it is unprecedented," Brian Jennings, the NHL's senior vice president for marketing, said of the video. "Saying groundbreaking is probably too much, but we had certainly been going at it with a specific marketing tone and thematic. A core belief of ours is that leagues should speak from a position of authority. [Sponsorship] partners will stretch and take you to different areas because they're leveraging your brand, but from a League perspective you don't want to do it."

In other words, the NHL is rarely in the business of poking fun at itself, especially when it comes to the pomp and pride of the most recognizable trophy in sports. Here, though, the League and NBC made a calculated play to reach a larger audience. In doing so, they capitalized on the widespread notoriety of the trophy itself.

Viewers may not know the Miracle on Manchester, but they have almost certainly heard of that hulking, silver-plated chalice handed to the last team standing after surviving four best-of-7 series.

"The Stanley Cup has so much equity," Jennings said. "As good as the work was with 'History Will Be Made,' the word 'history' itself is uninviting if you don't know the history. Bobby Orr flying through the air certainly means something to hardcore hockey fans, but if you don't know what that is, it's uninviting to the casual fan."

Jennings and Bill Bergofin, senior VP of marketing for NBC Sports, started brainstorming last fall to find, as Bergofin calls it, that evasive "cultural tipping point" where the NHL postseason can get both hardcore fans and their more casual counterparts to watch.

Jennings liked the transparency and fan involvement of the 'History Will Be Made' campaign, where fans took the stock music and created their own tribute videos. Bergofin had recently rolled out his Barclay's Premier League marketing campaign, which included an "intelligent humor" component: a series of ads surrounding Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis), an American football coach hired by English football (soccer) team Tottenham Hotspur. The humorous videos dealt with the cultural dissonance between the two sports, racking up millions of YouTube views in the process.

Ultimately the two commissioned The Brooklyn Brothers, frequent collaborators with the NHL and the creative agency responsible for the Premier League campaign. The deciding factor may have been the agency's knack for engaging a social media-savvy audience in an age of instantaneous sharing of content.

"I think what we've sort of developed over the past two to three years is the tone of voice where we're hoping to entertain as much as persuade," said Guy Barnett, founder and creative director of Brooklyn Brothers. "I think what we look to do each time, whatever project it is, is to get people engaged in it. … Behind what we did for the Premier League was a strong strategy of making sure that we spoke to a lot of people in a lot of different ways."

For Barnett and his team, the Stanley Cup Playoffs presented a similar challenge.

"How do we talk to fans of American sports, maybe not just hockey fans, and get them involved?" Barnett asked.

Enter Kroll, a New York native and Rangers fan, and his team that included writer Mike Scully (The Simpsons, Parks & Recreation), director Jason Woliner (Human Giant) and veteran actors Morris and Sanders.

Woliner expressed surprise at how much freedom the NHL, NBC and the agency gave the creatives.

"It was kind of fun and unique in that we were really just making a short with this premise and trying to come up with the bits for it," Woliner said. "Usually, commercials are much more structured and regimented, and there are also a lot more voices and people making sure you're serving a bunch of different masters. With this, it was really just they had this idea they wanted to do, they had Nick, and we were just kind of commissioned to make a short."

Bergofin ensured that giving the actors and director the space to create was never an issue.

"To use the sports analogy where you're the coach or the GM, you ultimately want to put the right people on the ice to win the game," Bergofin said.

While the shoot was monitored by the Phil Pritchard and Mike Bolt, two of the four white-gloved custodians of the Stanley Cup, all involved said that the keepers of the Cup not only signed off on most of the suggestions, but even made some of their own.

"We were on set, and we had [the keepers] there the whole time," Barnett said. "So you say, 'Well, can we do apple bobbing?' 'Yeah, sure you can do apple bobbing.' 'Can we do a fondue?' 'Yeah, sure you can do a fondue.' So it was remarkable the way they joined in the fun."

All this, and there's still plenty for the fanatics and history buffs to enjoy about the video. The liberties taken with the trophy call to mind some of the crazier things players have done in the past, like when Sylvain Lefebvre baptized his daughter in the Cup's basin after winning the ultimate prize with the Colorado Avalanche in 1996. At one point, Kroll gives a nod to the Cup's rich history by reading part of the roster of the 1907 Montreal Wanderers, the first team to carve its name on the bowl's interior surface.

The comic, who rose to fame thanks to a roster of satirical and absurd characters he slips into and out of on stage and screen, kept it simple for the video by playing himself. Asked about his decision to go straight, Kroll said he was content to cede the spotlight to Stanley.

"It was an ensemble. Honestly, the Cup was the star and we were all happy to be supporting players for it," Kroll said. "Also, to play a character was not how Messier prophesied it to be."

As it's only a few weeks and one playoff series since the release of the video, there's little in the way of metrics to determine whether "Cupnappers" was a success in terms of numbers. Still, Jennings has seen enough to know the League won't shy away from this new mode of advertising in the coming seasons.

"I'm pleased with the results to date," Jennings said. "From my own instincts, we waded into the waters for the first time. We may adjust a couple things moving forward, but we like what it was. I'm definitely open to this in the future, and I think you'll definitely continue to see this type of content, fan engagement, and the reach-out to a younger generation and a changing landscape."

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