In the high-stakes game of poker, Unilever Canada's gamble to create a national tournament to resurrect a struggling brand could have been a risky play. With so many provincial regulations restricting gambling — and endless levels of government approval processes — "we could have folded our cards very early, saying it wasn't worth the effort," recalls Peter Pinfold, brand manager on Degree deodorant. "We could have said, 'We are responsible corporate citizens and this is an area we don't want to go near.'"
Yet Unilever went ahead with a major play, creating the Degree Poker Championship, a Texas Hold 'Em tournament — broadcast on TSN this fall and one of the few significant poker promotions launched in Canada this year. Perhaps it is surprising there weren't more, especially since there was no NHL hockey last season. In fact, online poker has become so popular that many people now consider it a "sport."
Last fall, TSN's poker online coverage, which included the annual World Series of Poker, Poker Million and the European Open Poker Championships — averaged about 157,000 viewers per broadcast, up 47% or 109,000 from just a year prior. Those ratings are better than most NBA broadcast games. And TSN's broadcast of the World Series of Poker, the largest gaming competition in the world, attracted a whopping 172,000 viewers. In the U.S., sponsors of the World Series of Poker, broadcast by ESPN throughout summer and fall, include Coca-Cola and Bayer. Other specialty broadcasters have seen high viewership, including Startv's Celebrity Poker, often the network's top-rated program.
Fuelled by such technology as "lipstick," or under-the-table cameras that reveal the cards to home viewers, plus Cinderella stories like everyman Chris Moneymaker — a former accountant who pocketed $2.5 million a few years ago at the World Series of Poker, the first person to win the prestigious event by qualifying on the Internet — the popularity of poker seems to have reached a fever pitch. Will more advertisers jump on the poker bandwagon?
While retailers like Hudson's Bay Co. and Loblaws hawk poker paraphernalia, only Labatt Breweries of Canada and Unilever have hitched their brands to the game in a big promotional way, according to Matthew Diamond, partner at Toronto agency Capital C Communications, which has yet to create a online poker promotion for one of its many clients. He says his agency pitched the concept to marketers three years ago, but they were skittish about the negative associations around poker, primarily gambling addiction. "What has shifted is organizations have become more comfortable in recognizing it is another form of entertainment," says Diamond. "I still see room in the marketplace for these types of programs."
That may turn out to be true, especially when marketers hear about the success of both the Unilever and Labatt promotions — despite the tough gaming regulations that promotional executives say often frighten away interested advertisers. In fact, when Degree's agency, Segal Communications in Toronto, contacted Aubrey Zidenberg, president of Toronto consultancy Casino Amusement Canada, Zidenberg initially said an advertiser-driven national tournament "couldn't be done." He felt there were too many gaming regulations; since each is determined provincially, Unilever would have to deal with numerous jurisdictions. Also, if Unilever was to host a tournament, it would need to be in a casino; outside casinos, poker games cannot be played for money. The Degree Poker Championships ended up being hosted at the River Rock Casino in Richmond, B.C. and Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort in Niagara Falls, Ont., with the latter also playing host to the championship round.
Unilever needed to gamble if it was going to save Degree, a unisex deodorant that was a category leader back in the '80s but had suffered a "decade of decline," says Pinfold. Unilever decided to relaunch a deodorant for each sex (the female version debuts in 2006), and Degree for Men was beefed up with more masculine packaging and macho-sounding scents. Poker online was chosen to promote the launch because it resonated with Degree's brand message: Life isn't worth living without calculated risk.
Aside from finding itself knotted up in regulatory red tape, Unilever faced other dangers. Advertising online, on-package and posters drove Canadians to degreepoker.com, where they could register for the chance to win one of 2,000 seats at the Degree Poker Tournament (which was filmed earlier this year and broadcast on TSN in September). The winner was to compete at the World Series of Poker in early October.
In the first five weeks of the promotion, which kicked off in May, degreepoker.com received 100,000 unique visitors, a Unilever Canada record with 30,000 opting to receive Degree updates and news. Degree is aimed at young men, but what if the winner ended up being a 65-year-old card shark?
Unilever performed police background checks, ensuring, among other things, participants didn't have disclosed gambling problems. But because Unilever wanted to create a truly national poker tournament, it didn't preclude women players (10% of the participants were female). "When you start out in reality television, you sometimes worry about who will become your brand ambassador," says Baron Manett, vice-president of Segal. "But (winner Liam Greig, a 25-year-old Vancouver resident and online poker software designer) absolutely fit within the sweet spot of the psychographic profile of being a great young guy, just starting in his career."
That sweet spot, according to Adam Ashton, vice-president of marketing for TSN and TSN Events, is the professional male, typically with a university degree. ACNielsen research also indicates the average target's household income is at least $75,000. During the broadcast, Unilever reached viewers with the Degree name displayed on the poker table, opening and closing billboards as well as the "Degree All-in Moment," in which a player puts all his chips into a game. The latter idea was picked up from Degree in the U.S., which developed a more conventional broadcast sponsorship of the World Series of Poker.
The Degree Poker Championship has been successful, even without the actual broadcasts factored in. Pinfold says the Degree for Men brand has registered high double-digit sales growth versus last year. And with a three-year deal, "my hopes are to make it bigger next year," says Pinfold. Meanwhile, Ashton says TSN is already in talks to sign on lower-level sponsors of next year's tournament.
Labatt Breweries of Canada is the other major marketer at the gaming table. This spring, Labatt launched Labatt Blue Chip Poker, in which customers at bars and restaurants received poker chips to be used to enter a series of regional events played at those establishments. The winner of a final game in Toronto won entry to the World Poker Tour tournament. The World Poker Tour was created by Los Angeles-based media company WPT Enterprises and is broadcast in the U.S. on the Travel Channel (tournaments are played throughout the year around the globe, from Paris to Las Vegas), and licensed to over 100 other markets. But because the Labatt games were played at retail, "there was no money involved," says Bob Chant, Labatt's director of corporate affairs.
Chant says this program, in terms of sales volume at the 72 venues across Canada where the tournaments took place, "was as good as any other program" in recent memory.
"The program was the single best on-premises program we've run in many years," attracting almost 200 people per event. However, he won't reveal Labatt's hand for next year, declining to say if it plans to continue the poker promotion. But he notes the Labatt Blue Chip Poker wasn't aimed at replacing hockey-themed promotions, but that it had been built into this year's marketing budget anyway. Mosaic Sales Solutions in Toronto created the program.
With hockey back, could poker lose its allure? Doubtful, according to Aidan Tracey, president of Mosaic. Tracey has inked a deal to bring a Canadian event to the World Poker Tour in 2006. That will include working here with casinos, as well as seeking TV partners and, of course, corporate sponsorships.
"Like anything hot, I am sure poker may cool off in the next 12 months," says Tracey. "But it has established a strong, very loyal base of players and TV viewers. Poker is not going anywhere anytime soon." The Canadian expansion, along with one in the Philippines, is the first licensing agreement entered into by the World Poker Tour. Looks like poker as a promotional play has just upped the ante.
"Like anything hot, poker may cool off in the next 12 months. But it has established a strong, very loyal base of players and TV viewers. Poker is not going anywhere anytime soon"