On Mike Gillis and Marketing To His Audience

Of all the Canucks honours up for grabs this season, the most deserving is Mike Gillis for Executive of the Year.  Or perhaps Marketer of the Year.

While his acquisitions and re-signings (all of which have been analyzed ad nauseum over this playoff run) have been great,  as head of the entire Canucks organization, Gillis has done a phenomenal job of changing the culture and attractiveness of the NHL’s Pacific Rim outpost. 

And all of it, in my estimation, has essentially been an effective marketing and re-branding exercise to attract his most desired audience: good hockey players.

Build it, and they will come.

As a former agent, Gillis has the unique perspective of knowing what players want from an organization.  Just like any employee, players want to work for a solid organization that has a commitment to success and a commitment to its people. 

Remodeling the dressing room, hiring sleep and nutritional experts, creating season-end reviews with off-season improvement regimens — yes it all adds to the on-ice success, but more than anything, it’s a clear message to all players in the league that the organization is dedicated to winning and to improving its players’ experience. 

Birds of a feather flock together.

Integrity, intelligence, and accountability.  Gillis was very clear about the culture he wanted to cultivate; he wanted men of character on his team.  That’s what Gillis wanted and that’s what he went out and got.  With a vision of the Canucks organization in place, he sought out attracting the right personnel, from senior advisors right down to draft picks.  

Talent and skill would no longer be enough to make the Canucks’ roster.  There’s a reason Manny Malhotra arrived at training camp already running drills.  There’s a reason Gillis told Dan Hamhuis that they only wanted him if he was willing to give back to the community.

The impact this had on the Canucks’ reputation is immeasurable.  It’s brand building at its finest.  When you show the league and its players that you only want and will only accept the best, that’s who you’ll attract.  The whole process is brilliant in its simplicity.  It’s the easiest marketing any businesses can implement: do an exceptional job, and the audience you seek will start seeking you.

Word of mouth. (You know, the original social media.)

Players talk.  Casual off season conversations between friends happen all the time.  Who doesn’t want to know if the grass is greener on the other side?  “What’s it like to play for that coach?  What’s your travel like?  What kinds of amenities do you have?  How does the organization treat you and your family?”

As the saying goes: “Reputation is what people say about you when you’re not in the room;”  the way those questions are answered is precisely what builds a reputation.  There’s a reason Mike Gillis patterned his template for the Canucks organization after the renowned Red Wings franchise.  Detroit is the team everyone wants to play for.  They have a reputation for structure, stability, championship pedigree and league-wide respect.

So how do you get players talking positively about your hockey club?  

Gillis and Malhotra chat at practice

Well, basically what Mike Gillis has done to take this franchise to the next level.  Everybody in the league and their mother knows exactly how Manny Malhotra was treated over the course of his terrible eye injury.  And if you don’t believe the word of mouth, then just listen to the cracks in Malhotra’s voice  during his recent press conference when asked about his team and the organization.

Players know these things.  They hear the talk and they know where “the good places” are.  You better believe Gillis heard that talk while he was an agent and I believe he’s done an admirable job of getting the Canucks into that conversation.  He had a brand and a message, and he’s effectively gotten it through to his target audience.

The result speaks for itself.

Creating an organization that players want to join and work hard for is, aside from winning a championship, arguably one of the hardest tasks in professional sports.  It takes vision, attention to detail, creativity and an understanding of how to attract and retain the best players possible.

During these Stanley Cup playoffs, the Canucks’ “talent and depth” have been praised by virtually every major media outlet.  I’d say that’s a job well done.

It’s a testament to the success of Gillis’ moves that the Canucks are in their first Stanley Cup Final in 17 years, but it will be a testament to his strategy if we can see them there again sooner than that.


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