Monthly Archives: May 2012

A Brand Sherpa In The Midst of Hockey Fans in Canada

I have never been a hockey fan.

At least I never made a point to be. But I think that will change for me when it comes to next year’s Stanley Cup.

I have been directing a “lets do something interesting” project at Northstar over the past few weeks centered around the idea that professional sports properties and the brands / marketers that support them can build deeper and stronger brand connections by understanding the psycho-social and cultural context of sports spectatorship.

We developed a strategic research model designed to explore that context with qualitative and ethnographic work that would inform a quantitative tool for modeling the “meaning”. 🙂 In choosing where to start, from our office in Toronto, the “no-brainer” came to us….Lets study the context of NHL Hockey in Canada!

Without giving away all the Jewels that the PR people are responsible for, I felt compelled to share some of my nerdy anthropological “Ah- Has”.

For example: There are no Canadian teams left to vie for t the Stanley Cup(arguably the most iconic trophy in professional sports), but do you think that has deterred Canadians from their commitment to loyal viewership? Or a decline in social media chatter among Canadians. No way, Eh! Social media chatter about the NHL during the playoffs was still up by 3-fold compared to regular season.

Why?  this game is no mere recreational activity or time-filling side item for the Canadian populace.  It’s a part of their lifestyle and life blood…a Zietgiest, even.

From the time they are old enough to walk, most Canadians have at least played if not spent countless hours watching brothers, friends or other relatives play.  And this is a sport that represents their adaptation to what can be a pretty cold climate for a good portion of the year.  What do you do when the pond freezes over?  Strap some blades or your feet and show your agility, coordination and team spirit!

And lets also talk about how Canadians perceive the way they are seen as a people by the rest of the world.  It’s no coincidence that American backpacking youth strap Canadian flags on their backs when traveling outside the U.S.  Canada is seen as a fairly neutral, docile, harmless country and culture.  They have a reputation for civility and a mild-mannered disposition.  But lest the world think Canadians can’t be warriors if called to the challenge, take a look at the National Sport of Hockey:  arguably one of the more bloody, full body contact sports that involves both a sharp mind and intensely physical skill set.  It’s almost as though Hockey is Canada’s cultural foil and it provides a sense of unity to a nation that really doesn’t have a common enemy to speak of.

I also learned a good deal about the role of engagement with the NHL brand and the sport among varying life-stages of Canadian fans.  For the younger groups, as an example (and specifically younger males), engagement with the sport is incredibly social at its root:  always watched in small to large groups.  Most of the time out at a bar (maybe there will be girls there?).  Deep engagement in social media, following stats and fantasy sports.  Why?  Cultural currency?  Analytical peacocking to compliment the testosterone fuel.  From trash-texting to out-doing peers on hockey expertise, it’s an age old ritual of finding your place in the social group and positioning yourself for mating rights.  🙂

As mean get more settled into family life-stages they tend to have already narrowed down their social groups and watch most often in private or subdued-settings. They start creating traditions and memories with their kids.  They get more involved in the reality-TV side of non-game-watching engagement:  attempting to empathize with players and teams and find deeper, more meaningful emotional connections to the sport.

And then there are the women.  Sure, Canada over-indexes on hard-core female hockey fans when you compare to female engagement with other professional sports, but there is a distinct difference in the way women engage overall.  For example, if you look at Canadian Moms, the root of their interaction with  NHL hockey is as a social bonding facilitator:  with their families, husbands,, etc.  Having baseline surface knowledge about the sport is often enough to get by, but the engagement  is mostly about curating traditions and memory-making moments for their families…and about showing a commitment to relating to the family and friends that are important to them by actively engaging in their passions.

So what does all this mean for brands who are looking to the NHL as a marketing resource?

First:  if you are going to attempt to meaningfully reach Canadians during hockey season, make sure you have a legitimate right to a point of view on the sport, or the culture of the sport.  Showing a little empathy for the distinct context of Hockey in Canadian life will go a long way in driving respect for your brand

Second:  Dig into the engagement nuances by age and life stage.  There are many distinctions based on demographics and psychographics that, if considered in media planning, can dramatically increase efficiency of a brands marketing spend

Third:  don’t forget the WOMEN!  Even professional men’s hockey / The NHL isn’t just about testosterone and dudes drinking beer.  The Moms are shopping for the groceries and ordering the pizza that will feed their house guests at game time.  They are also the ones taking their kids to hockey practice and strapping on their skates.  There are lots of opportunities to reach women and moms on both a grassroots level and with traditional media.  Empowering Mom to be a her0 and find deeper connections with her families through hockey will potentially facilitate a deeper consumer connection to brands and even deeper fan engagement with the NHL.

In the coming week, we will be closing out the quantitative validation and measurement phase of this study focused on NHL hockey.  We will be preparing a full report that includes highly directive and actionable insights and implications for marketers and brands.

Anyone interested in purchasing this study can contact me directly:

Otherwise, I am eager to hear your reactions.  And eager to bulk up on my sports knowledge for our next study…NFL here I come?


Is The Brand Sherpa a Culturematic?

When I started The Brand Sherpa, it was an experiment. I was a freelance consumer anthropologist and brand strategist who was seeking an outlet for my point of view. The exact outcome was uncertain: would I sustain a consulting business? Would I get have some interesting conversations and to hobnob with other practitioners in my field?  Would I “go global”? The results thus far have been both interesting and invigorating.

I got to spend about a year and a half working on projects for companies like Coca-Cola, Unilever, BeDo (Marc Matthieu’s former Sustainability-focused consulting business) and Toyota doing work that spanned product innovation, creative inspiration, NGO strategy, brand positioning and consumer Targeting Strategy.

I created an interactive digital wall of “Killer Facts” for inspiring brand innovation,, brought Tigers and Wonderland to the World of Coke (both live!), developed a (modest) blog following, got to contribute a chapter to a market research text book, learned how to crack an accounts-receivable whip, got myself a Trademark and fearlessly embraced my entrepreneurial spirit in the heart of a recession.

I had the opportunity to inspire and be inspired, and ultimately have extended my Brand Sherpa experiment to my current role as VP of Consumer Anthropology at Northstar Research Partners (which has so far proved a very satisfying challenge).  A number of unexpected results have come my way and I, as always, look forward to what tomorrow will bring.

This bout of self-indulgent blogging is not without egging-on….or a point….

I have been reading Culturematic, a new anthropological perspective on leveraging “randomness” in consumer culture by Consumer Anthropologist Grant McCracken. He elaborates on viral memes and social experiments, what makes them meaningful and why they are important to marketers. And the website / social network devoted to the book is in itself, an experiment in “what happens next” (
You can buy the book anywhere they sell books, I beleive. But here is a link via the Better World Books site:

I have also “lent out” a copy to a local Atlanta watering hole where the walls are lined with books. It’s hidden in the stacks and If you find it, it’s yours to read and pass on. 🙂

I look at my own Brand Sherpa experiment…which is still going strong. But if you read Grant’s book carefully, it is not necessarily a Culturematic. I do, however, live my  life as one big Culturematic.

From one day to the next i fearlessly start conversations, throw out ideas or perform acts of randomness designed to poke at the boundaries and see what happens. I have found it a personally satisfying way to be and wholeheartedly encourage the practice with friends, peers, colleagues and aspiring young “sherpas” who come to me for advice.

I’m a “fan” of Grant McCracken and find this book to be particularly inspiring. Worth a read even if just to nudge you to make your life more Culturematic. 🙂 This is yet another in a line of publications from Grant that takes academic anthropological concepts to mainstream audiences and marketers in a way that makes inspiration both accessible and actionable.

Now go forth and do something random.