Canadiens rewarding fans, building brand

The Canadiens will offer perks to loyal fans who cheer them on in the Bell Centre and elsewhere. Andre Ringuette/Getty Images

MONTREAL -- Sure, the ads take a bit of poetic license.

No, if you join Club 1909, you cannot actually spend a night watching Carey Price sleep in his bed.

But that ad, along with others by actor-comedian Jay Baruchel and his beloved Montreal Canadiens, try to deliver the point about the famed organization’s new loyalty program.

Club 1909 (www.club1909.com) was launched last week, a multifaceted fan membership program that intends to align Montreal’s brand around the world along the likes of the other big franchise hitters in sports.

Sitting in his Bell Centre office last week during an interview with ESPN.com, Kevin Gilmore, the team’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, explained the genesis for Club 1909 and why a team with automatic sellouts and sky-high TV ratings felt the need to branch out even more.

"Sometimes, you have to look at your business and kind of turn it sideways to see what it is now," Gilmore said. "The challenge from a marketing standpoint was to say, 'Guys, let’s look at what we do, who we are and what we represent.' We spent a while on it, we talked to some outside people and to people inside here.

"Basically the conclusion was that for the lack of a better word, we’re a legacy team, we’re synonymous with the sport. Same way the Yankees and Red Sox are with baseball, the Cowboys and Packers with football. I’m sure the Leafs would argue the Leafs and Canadiens with hockey, and that’s a fair comment. We said, 'If that’s what we are, we need to start acting a little more like that.'"

By the Canadiens’ estimation, they’ve got about 10 million fans around the globe. Obviously only 21,273 of them can get into one game at a time, and many of them never do get to experience an actual game at the Bell Centre.

So Club 1909 is an effort by the organization to reach out not only to their core base, but also to those far and about.

"If you’re a fan that lives in South Dakota, South Florida, South America or Europe, you can go to our website and read about us, you can get GameCenter live and watch games online, you can stream the games on radio; so you can follow us, but all that’s happening is that we’re speaking to you," said Gilmore.

"It’s a one-way conversation so you don’t know who you are or where you are; we know you’re out there. So how do we create something that allows those fans to speak back to us and engage with us? And how can we create a win-win situation where we give them something for being a fan? We call it rewarding small acts of loyalty."

So whether it’s just a tweet about the Habs or just tuning into the game, as long as you’re a member of Club 1909, the organization will reward those members with loyalty points. Fans can join for free, or can become a premium member by paying a one-time fee of $29.99, which gets you a membership card embedded with a piece of game-worn jersey.

We kid you not.

But who’s kidding whom? While the Canadiens say this about connecting more to their fan base, and that's obviously a big part of it, at the end of the day, improving your brand around the world also means also improving your bottom line.

That is why this program, if it takes off like the Habs hope it will, could be an innovative way to stretch the branding power of a team that otherwise appeared to have saturated the conventional revenue/branding routes. But Gilmore stresses that this includes unique aspects.

"In most loyalty programs, you have to spend money to get points. But ours is a very democratic loyalty program in the sense that you can accumulate as many points as a non-season-ticket holder as a season-ticket holder does by doing things like watching games on TV and listening to games on the radio. Following us on Twitter, you get points, re-tweeting something we put out there you get points; if you follow us on Facebook and like a story of ours and share it, you get loyalty points. They’re all acts of loyalty, they’re all acts from fans who have that strong emotional bond with the team,’’ Gilmore said.

Here’s a breakdown of how the points system works.

"The other thing we said is, 'Can we create a program that also breaks down the walls of the Bell Centre?'" Gilmore said.

For example, Club 1909 members who record themselves on video chanting "Go Habs Go" could be chosen to join into the actual live chant during a game.

"When the fans here at the Bell Centre start the 'Go Habs Go' chant we’ll allow those fans to also join in, we’ll pipe that in," said Gilmore. "So you can be in Europe, and your voice is being heard."

The Habs hired British company Fortress GB to help them craft Club 1909. The technology firm has done work with teams such as Arsenal, Manchester City, the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

With the Red Sox, Gilmore says, Fortress GB’s work was focused primarily on season-ticket holders. The Habs wanted to go beyond that.

"We were like, 'How about we evolve together into a loyalty program that’s beyond the four walls of the building?' Let’s take care of the season-ticket holders, but at the same time, let’s extend it beyond the four walls and allow the guy in Europe or Chicoutimi also to accumulate loyalty points. Not just for spending money, but just for being a fan. That’s the logic beyond it."

And while increasing its brand name worldwide, the Club 1909 program will also hopefully help the team identify the actual people who are Habs fans or attend games. As Gilmore says, the average season-ticket holder goes to seven games a season, and shares or sells the rest of the tickets.

"So who’s the person sitting there otherwise? Maybe now we’ll know who they are," said Gilmore.

By having Club 1909 scan their membership cards or bar codes from their phones while entering the Bell Centre, the Habs will get a face to match the fan entering the building.

"It’s about how can you better serve your clientele by knowing who they are," Gilmore said.

"So let’s say Pierre comes to his 100th game since he’s been a member of Club 1909, because he has John’s [season] tickets, and we know he’s there. 'Hey Pierre, as a reward for you being here for your 100th game, here’s an X-dollar voucher for the merchandise store,'" Gilmore said.

"These are the kind of things we can do once we’ve basically migrated people under this platform and we know who they are and how they express their loyalty, whether it’s here or somewhere else."

The program is in its infancy, and Gilmore envisions being able to do way more with it as technology evolves. But for now, it’s a start, and Gilmore reiterated the point:

"The raison d’etre is to give our fans a chance to connect with us."