Ottawa Citizen

CBC technicall­y correct but clumsy in hockey theme debacle

- MARK SUTCLIFFE

The way some people reacted to the CBC losing the Hockey Night in Canada theme song, you’d think they’d announced a new miniseries in which Anne Shirley converts Green Gables into a Wal-Mart.

What’s the big deal? Did Canadians really want millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money going to a simple ditty that has little to do with the actual hockey games broadcast on Saturday nights? Most viewers probably tune in too late to hear it anyway, or skip right over it when they’re watching the game on their PVRs.

But by abandoning its iconic hockey theme for the last 40 years, the CBC committed a litany of business mistakes from surrenderi­ng a valuable asset, to tampering with an establishe­d brand, to trampling all over the customer experience.

CBC executives might be technicall­y correct in defending their decision as fiscally responsibl­e. But that’s like saying it would be financiall­y smart for a high-end steakhouse to start serving hot dog meat. Try explaining it to your customers.

The broadcasti­ng honchos probably figured that on a night when Montreal is playing Toronto with a playoff spot on the line, nobody is tuning in to hear the music. That may be true. But over 40 years of repe- tition, the theme song has come to mean more to Canadians than just the introducti­on to a Saturday night hockey game.

And when you find yourself in the lucky position of holding domain over something that has an inflated nostalgic value, why mess with it? Or, much worse, let a competitor have it?

The CBC’s blunder is comparable to when the geniuses at Coca-Cola tinkered with the formula for the world’s favourite soft drink. At least the beverage company had the op- tion of resurrecti­ng the original concoction when the market went ballistic.

CBC waited until its contract with the song’s composer ran out before announcing it planned to change the theme. By the time the public reacted, the CBC had no time to reconsider because CTV had already scooped up the rights. Forever. Imagine if by the time Coca-Cola discovered their customers were outraged about New Coke, Pepsi had already scooped up the original recipe.

Alright, you’re saying, but it’s only a song. It’s not the core product: The hockey game. But what CBC underestim­ated is that Canadians don’t just want to see a hockey game on Saturday night. They want to see Hockey Night in Canada, they want to see it on the CBC and they want Don Cherry and Ron Maclean and the same song they’ve heard for 40 years. Remember the outcry when Maclean’s contract almost wasn’t renewed a few years ago? CBC executives must have forgotten that experience or they never would have meddled with Hockey Night again.

Starbucks founder Howard Schultz points out his business isn’t about the coffee, it’s about the customer experience. In the same way, Hockey Night in Canada — with all of its parts — is a Saturday night tradition. Mickey Mouse may not be the most contempora­ry, appealing or interestin­g animated character today, but he’s still the biggest star at Disney World. When customers are happy with a familiar experience, they don’t want dramatic change.

And customers are becoming increasing­ly forceful about insisting on having things exactly the way they want them. A few years ago, Business Week argued that customers are starting to exert more control over a corporate brand than company management. Contrary to Naomi Klein’s argument in No Logo, the multinatio­nals aren’t bullying the buying public through the use of brands, it’s the customers who are using their clearly stated expectatio­ns of a particular brand to constrain a company from straying from a familiar path.

And instead of walking away if they’ve had a bad experience, customers are now using social marketing and other tools to pressure businesses into meeting their expectatio­ns.

That may constrain companies from cutting corners, but it can also prevent them from innovating or expanding their offerings.

Look at Apple’s customers, some of whom think they own the brand as much as the company does. The result is a committed base of consumers who do word-of-mouth and viral marketing on behalf of the company. But it also means narrow wiggle room for company management if they want to do anything outside the expectatio­ns of their powerful constituen­cy. When Apple hardwired the iPhone to be used with a particular telecom, it was only a matter of time before someone unlocked it on behalf of the community of Apple users. The community didn’t switch allegiance­s, they made the company conform to their needs.

In the era of YouTube and other community-driven corporate models, pity the business that still assumes that it has exclusive domain over its own identity.

The community thinks it owns the business.

Harness that and you’ll do well. Fight against it and you’ll perish.

Peter Weedfald, a bigbrand American marketing executive, once put it, “Consumers are empowered in a way that’s almost frightenin­g.”

Too bad the CBC found out what its customers wanted after it was too late to do anything about it. But they should have known better than to play games with their signature broadcast.

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