The Penguins have put in an incredible amount of work behind the scenes to become one of the NHL’s successful franchises on the ice as well as off.
In addition to their three Stanley Cups and 15 individual league scoring championships, the Penguins have led U.S.-based NHL teams in TV ratings the past six years, consistently rank among the league’s top innovators in digital and social media, geared their marketing and community outreach program to focus on young people of the region, and have teamed with the Penguins Foundation to grow the game at a grassroots level.
And on Thursday, the Penguins were recognized for their efforts when the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Marketing Association inducted them into its marketing Hall of Fame at a luncheon in Mt. Washington.
“The Pittsburgh Penguins were a unanimous choice for this award and we were excited to have them as part of this group of Hall of Fame inductees,” said chapter president Lauren Kudrick.
“Just because of the work that they have done over the past year, from attendance and selling out consecutive years to their marketing campaigns that really resonate with fans like myself and members of the board. So we were really happy and excited to extend them that honor.”
Penguins vice president of marketing James Santilli accepted the award on behalf of the franchise, calling it a “great honor” and one earned by what was truly a team effort.
“I think it’s a testimony to the entire organization, starting with (owners) Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, who give us the resources to be successful on and off the ice,” Santilli said. “Then (CEO and president) David Morehouse, as it was really his vision and guidance that helped us define the brand eight years ago.
“From that point forward, we’ve worked to broaden and deepen the brand locally and throughout North America and then to try and grow the sport of hockey at all levels. We also work to be a good community partner and to help cement Pittsburgh as a hockey town.”
After Morehouse was first named president back in 2007, the organization did a complete brand audit – conducting exhaustive research that included focus groups, 1-on-1 interviews and surveys – to get inside the minds of their fans.
That helped them define the Penguins brand as “drive, energy and innovation” and inspired them to promote optimism with their now-signature slogan.
“That’s when we re-introduced ‘It’s a Great Day for Hockey,’” Santilli said. “It just fits everything we’re trying to do on the ice, off the ice, with youth hockey and in the community with the Penguins Foundation.”
Kudrick said that slogan in particular resonated with her and the judging panel, many of whom watched the Penguins win their first-ever Stanley Cup back in 1991 under coach ‘Badger’ Bob Johnson. But what also thoroughly impressed Kudrick and the board was the Pens’ focus on the young people of the region.
“Getting the younger generation involved with Student Rush and that program has been really great,” she said. “It was a really great idea, as was having the Penguins go and deliver pizzas and things like that. I think the Penguins are doing a lot of great things for the fanbase here in Pittsburgh.”
That brand study the Penguins did back in 2008 was what helped them realize they had a unique space among the younger demographic.
“We started targeting to millennials, basically – twenty-somethings and younger,” Santilli said. “That’s when we put the extra emphasis on Student Rush, introducing the big screen for playoff games and then getting into the grassroots with the Learn to Play program and helping out the youth hockey associations. That includes the great work of the Penguins Foundation building 12 dek hockey rinks and then giving equipment to 600-plus schools so they could start playing hockey in gym class.”
One of the efforts Santilli is most proud of is the growth of youth hockey in Western Pennsylvania over the past 7-8 years.
“That’s a big accomplishment for the organization because when we did the research, we realized there was a barrier to entry to play ice hockey in Pittsburgh,” Santilli explained. “We addressed that with Sidney Crosby and the Learn to Play program with the support of Dick’s Sporting Goods and CCM. We went from having a challenge to leading the country. The Mid-Am District has the most growth over the past five years. That’s a program that now the NHL is taking and trying to adopt across all 29 other markets.”
Another big accomplishment is the team’s presence in digital and social media, where the Pens consistently rank among the league’s top innovators.
“Having to adapt to all these new technologies and channels and being able to communicate with our fans and help grow our fanbase has been big,” Santilli said. “The biggest change has been social media. I remember right after this brand study back in 2008, we started hearing about Twitter. It just opened up so many other avenues to communicate with our fans, and increased the amount of content we need to produce to fill all those channels and fill the fans’ need for content and information.”
The Pens have accomplished a lot under Santilli since he was named Vice President of Marketing in 2008, and he says a lot of that comes from Morehouse keeping everyone in the organization motivated to ask themselves what the next big idea is.
“We want to be leaders in the sports industry, always bringing something new to the fans,” Santilli said. “So that kind of keeps us on our toes.”
The Penguins are grateful to be acknowledged for what they’ve already done, and they’re already thinking of what they can do next.
“It’s great for the organization to be recognized and hopefully we can look forward to many, many more great days for hockey,” Santilli said.