An Interview with Laurel Lindsay, Blue Jays VP of Consumer Marketing

Wednesday, January 18 2006 @ 08:04 AM EST

Contributed by: Thomas

On Friday, November 25th I had the pleasure of spending an hour talking to Toronto’s Vice-President of Consumer Marketing, Laurel Lindsay, in Kingston. Laurel, who graduated from Queen’s with a Special Field Degree in Communications in 1991, returned to her alma mater to give a talk at the Queen’s Sports Industry Conference that weekend and she generously agreed to speak to me an hour before her evening address to the conference.

Upon graduation Laurel worked in tourism briefly before completing the Public Relations Certificate Program at Humber College. Following that, she entered right into the sports industry by finding employment with National Hockey League Players’ Association’s (NHLPA) special programs department in 1993. She was the manager of the Alumni Association and was in charge of coordinating special events and programs for alumni. She enjoyed the work and described it as rewarding to be able to help the former players with what little work experience they had learned outside of the hockey arena. It was a “great experience,” Laurel said, particularly because it was a hectic time for the NHLPA, as the lockout occurred during 1994. “Anytime a senior employee of the NHLPA took a breath the press would come running,” she recalled, so there was never a dull day during the entire experience. Laurel moved onto the Argos in 1996, working in game entertainment and community relations, but by December of the same year she was working for the Blue Jays.

She worked her way up through the department, starting in community relations, to her current position of VP of Consumer Marketing. Laurel’s responsibilities include the fields of game entertainment, promotions (giveaways to special nights), advertising, community relations and player relations. What consumer marketing doesn’t include is anything that is a sale tool of tickets, so direct mail, season tickets, group sales, flex packs and the Toronto Star Season’s Pass fall outside her job duties. Laurel is part of the team that is concerned of creating a positive experience at the Rogers Centre and a positive image of the Blue Jays, as well as advertising the team on a day-to-day basis and in a general manner. “My job is to drive the brand and individual game tickets,” she said. “I also deal with details such as ticket info, the next giveaway and who we are playing in the next homestand, as well as coming up with creative strategy and media with our advertising agency for use for our marketing campaigns.”

The marketing department works in tandem with the other departments of the Blue Jays. Much like a team sport, managing a baseball club as a business also involves ensuring that all aspects of the business are on the same page and are following a coherent plan with regards the team. That being said, the marketing department doesn’t base its strategy on specific players and the front office doesn’t base personnel moves on the player’s marketability. With regards to player decisions Laurel succinctly said, “Our conversations are always informational, not directional in any respect.”

In fact, she said the toughest element of player transactions is that the uncertainty surrounding many players may mean that a certain individual who was once on the team is no longer available for an event or a promotion during the season. “You may have a bobblehead day when the player is no longer on the team, for example,” she said. Other times a player is no longer around to engage in charity work, which can throw an entire campaign or event into disarray. Laurel said she’s constantly reminding companies and organisations that their player(s) may no longer be around if they are planning an event months in advance; alternatively, their performance is also not guaranteed and the player may also have a poor season, which will similarly hurt the event.

In terms of delineating the duties, the Blue Jays work with an advertising agency to help them with their media-based promotions. The Jays develop a business plan, which includes both objectives and strategies, and then they’ll work in conjunction with the agency to come up with creative ideas and methods of implementing this plan. As Laurel said, “It’s incredibly important to come up with a consistent thread to work through each media outlet and our creative strategy has to encapsulate that.” Each media outlet has a different purpose. “TV brands both players and products; it’s the way we get the faces of the players and the team out there. Newspaper is purely informational; it talks about upcoming series and promotions and gives ticket and game details. Radio is a mixture of both.”

However, media advertising isn’t the sole form of promoting the product that the department is concerned with. Obvious as it is, the department wants to make each game an experience that sells the product and leaves consumers satisfied. “Marketing is an in-game experience,” Laurel said. “As cheesy as it sounds, each game is a memory and we want to make that memory as positive as we can.”

As consumer marketing is so concerned with creating an enjoyable environment they are very aware that they have to pay attention to the opinions and wishes of the fans. During the 2005 season there was a survey online on the team’s website where they asked 80 questions about everything from buying one’s ticket to concessions prices (one of the few areas the team has no control over) to the J-Force. While it may seem like nothing for many readers of Batter’s Box to answer 80 questions about the Blue Jays, Laurel admits that surveying experts “would have told us that 80 questions is way, way too much.” However, the team got 3,600 responses, “which is huge from a data response perspective and a testament to our fans.” The team then compared this to results from a survey they did after the 2004 season and with the results of past focus groups in helping them devise future direction for plans.

The Jays estimate they have 15,000 avid fans. While they certainly do not take them for granted, as evidenced by the perks many get for extended ticket-packs for example, Laurel admits, “We focus our advertising on casual fans.” The avid fans, whether they go to 20 or 80 games a year, have the team in mind constantly, are aware of the dates of homestands and will attend games, regardless of the promotions or how much they like or dislike in-game features. That, in itself, means the team does not need to focus on the avid fans as much, as they are continually aware of the team; casual fans are not.

“There are about 210 days with articles on the Jays in Toronto newspapers over the year and that includes at least one article a day during the season. That’s free publicity. So is the fact that almost every game is on Sportsnet or TSN. That’s a free 3-hour advertisement most nights. The same with the highlights on the TSN in the morning, the discussion on the radio.” For this reason, Laurel explains, the club focuses it’s advertising on other avenues than the sports pages and stations. Combined with this focus on casual fans, the Jays have made no secret that they have focused a portion of their media buy and advertising on targeting women. They nurture their male audience, particularly those aged 18-34, but research has revealed that women make decisions about how to spend about 80% of the household’s consumer dollars. For this reason, the Jays have positioned themselves a family-friendly source of entertainment. For example, the Jays will place print advertisements not in the Sports section of the Toronto Star, but in GTA or What’s On sections. This increases the chance that a mother will come across the advertisement and keep baseball in mind as a family activity on the weekend.

The Blue Jays also target children in their advertising, too. The television stations YTV and TVO are among the outlets the team will use to focus on children. When a mother and her children watch television together there is a 60% recall rate of advertisements, which is a usually high amount. Additionally, the mother will often watch her child’s reaction to the advertisement to gauge potential interest. Again, this allows the club to target females with their advertising, albeit indirectly in this case. The same creative advertising will be used for continuity and it won’t be drastically modified for children. An exception may be a children’s magazine, for example, which would be animated, but as many as possible of the core elements of the thread would be maintained.

As stated before, the team does not completely disregard their male audience, either. Homestands against the Yankees and the Red Sox are usually advertised heavily in the Sports section, as that is likely to mean something even to very casual sports fans. Furthermore, promotions such as Alumni Weekend are also publicized in traditionally male outlets, as casual fans will recognize names from the past like Tom Henke or Manny Lee, whereas women and children are much less likely to.

Once the fan passes through the turnstiles the team tries to focus as much on the avid fans as the casual ones. The new Jumbotron has allowed them to include additional stats and appeal to hardcore fans that way, for example. However, the use of an in-game host and the J-Force are measures the team uses to keep casual fans entertained. Laurel mentioned the J-Force as being “particularly divisive.” Because of their mixed reaction (very positive amongst youngsters and more casual fans and negative among traditionalists and avid supporters) the team will not use them during Monday-Thursday games this year, but will instead focus on Friday and weekend games, when there are more likely to be children in the crowd.

The marketing staff has made the stadium improvements a small part of their advertising campaign, but they focus this on direct mailing, as opposed to media marketing. The stadium improvements also tend to become well-known through word-of-mouth and newspaper/TV coverage, so the team doesn’t need to promote them specifically. Of course, the team listens to what fans enjoy and don’t enjoy about the in-game experience and will make major modifications at the end of a season. Guest Services provides the department with feedback concerning common complaints, as do the surveys the team undertakes. Next year the team is planning to implement a Kids Zone and major renovations to the suites are on-going. Basically, the only part of the in-game experience that the department has no say over is the concession stands, which are not owned by Rogers.

Laurel stated that while she believes it is important to have stars or fan favourites to market in some cities, “in Toronto it’s great, but it’s not imperative.” To illustrate her example she pointed to the game where Roger Clemens got his 3,000th strikeout on July 5, 1998 against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (victim: Randy Winn). Not only was the attendance “not noticeably larger than usual” despite the baseball history people were about to observe (it was 31,240 on a Sunday; the Saturday had 29,198), but also “three-quarters of those in the stands didn’t know what they were witnessing.” She states that it certainly gives credibility to the franchise to have those players and it doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t sell more tickets in the long run.

The Jays have a few prominent players in their advertising campaigns, but there is no particular individual who is the “face of the team.” The department has determined that Halladay and Hudson are, or in Hudson’s case were, the two most popular Jays and they will certainly be included in marketing for 2006. However, they will not be the only Jays featured. Laurel explained, “You want a mixture of your up-and-coming players along with your marquee ones. You need to establish the recognized names, but you want to make sure to include the players who are going to be the team’s future. You want to turn them into recognizable names.”

Laurel explained that with community programs the team tries to find and match individual players with programs and community outreach endeavours that match the individual’s interests and strengths. All players go to team events (such as a lunch with the Blue Jays fan club), but each player is also matched with other events too, from hospital visits to running baseball clinics for kids to autograph sessions and so on. These aren’t mandatory, but most players accept and are willing to do community outreach programs. “There’s always one or two who won’t do something, but the Blue Jays are awesome,” said Laurel, describing it as one of the best groups of people she’s been around in her experience with these programs. She admitted the toughest part of it is maintaining a balance. “We’d love for them to do as much as possible and we encourage them to do as much as they are willing to do, without it intruding upon their job. It is tough to avoid being intrusive and it’s sometimes difficult to ask players to do something when they get about 2 off-days a month.” Nevertheless, most players find the time to do a good amount of stuff, which is a testament to their character.

The issue of a Winter Caravan was raised, as many US teams do similar promotions to build up momentum for the new season and have the players interact with the community. It has been a while since the Jays did one, but apparently they did used to have a Winter Caravan before the Interbrew years. It was done mainly across Ontario with the players visiting FAN590 affiliates, but was canceled because it provided a low return on investment, as the program was particularly costly. Furthermore, it was a lot to ask the players to do with Spring Training about a month away.

As Laurel doesn’t deal with group or season ticket sales, she was unable to comment on whether the Star pass has been a success or not, and what may have prompted the team to change the deal for the coming season. Similarly, she was not involved in ticket pricing, and couldn’t elaborate on that decision. However, when it came to giveaways Laurel was able to divulge that, likely coming as no surprise, bobblehead dolls giveaways were far and away the most popular. The team did notice an attendance increase on those days and the Jays’ box office receives calls well in advance inquiring as to which game is a bobblehead day. Most giveaways are geared towards weekends, particularly Sunday, as the target audience for about 70% of giveaways is youth. The other 30% is targeted to fans of all ages.

The Jays are also experiencing success with a number of their other community ventures. A new program called Jays@School was launched recently, which aims to promote baseball through using it as a tool for learning by incorporating specific elements of the game in math, social studies and physical education. After 4 months 26,000 children were using the program, which is close to as many as the Leafs had after one year. The Blue Jays Kids’ Club has also seen significant improvement in enrollment over the last few years.

The Jays are also sponsoring the Ontario Baseball Association’s mosquito division. This has helped promote baseball within the province and develop the talent of Ontario’s top child ballplayers. With the Jays helping promote competitive baseball for children the mosquito division saw its first increase in registration in five years last year. This has allowed the team to target these players as baseball enthusiasts and as future customers.

The OBA promotion is done on a provincial level; Jays@School is a provincial initiative, as are other programming ventures. Perhaps surprisingly, despite their outreach to Ontario provincial baseball and the departure of the Expos, the Jays have not made any conscious at all to market themselves to all of Canada or as “Canada’s only baseball team.” The Canadian angle is not being played up at all; instead a lot of emphasis was given to the logo change over the past few years. The old logo wasn’t competitive from a merchandising, particularly amongst youth. “With the new logo we wanted to ‘youthify’ the brand,” Laurel explained.

The Blue Jays usually target the 200-km radius around Toronto for marketing purposes, and if anything, that will actually decrease in coming years. They do buy advertising time on Global and CFTO, “But we need to be tactical in our decisions,” said Laurel. Game-specific marketing is focused on the GTA, but the team does market package ticket deals to Ontario and areas in the United States. The Sales department is behind those deals, so Laurel couldn’t go into much detail on them. However, the focus on the GTA, even in the wake of the loss of the Expos, was somewhat surprising.

As to how the team tries to differentiate itself in a hockey-saturated market, particularly in the wake of the NHL lockout, Laurel explained that the club did not do anything specific. If anything, the strikes tend to hurt attendance for sports in general, rather than help it. Laurel learned this lesson during her stint with the NHLPA in 1994 and it was true last year, as well. About 25% of attendance is individual game tickets, but this attendance tends to drop during a lockout or strike, because people feel frustrated at sports players in general and their complaints about greed and selfishness carry over to other sports. Instead of deciding to go to a Jays game instead of the Leafs game, the fan will instead choose neither because he or she is annoyed at professional sports in general. While attendance suffers, the broadcast ratings usually improve, and last year Sportsnet’s ratings “went through the roof,” in Laurel’s words. While fans don’t want to give their money to sports franchises, many still need a sports fix and will turn to baseball, even if they’re not usual fans of the sports. The team hopes some of these fans will stick around for the 2006 campaign, and the offseason moves and the buzz surrounding them should help, but generally the Jays market themselves as their own product and avoid any comparisons to the Leafs.

When asked about specific advertising campaigns, Laurel was unable to get into details about the 2003 season, because it wasn’t her area of responsibility at the time. Many seem to regard as the team’s best set of recent commercials, as who could forget Chris Woodward serenading a dress-wearing Roy Halladay in a canoe? However, she did admit that the team received several complaints about two commercials in the 2004 season, which eventually forced both commercials to be pulled. Aside from the man debating selling his wife for tickets commercial, the advertisement where the singer rushed through the national anthem offended many. As for the 2005 campaign, the idea behind the puppets was to play off the success of the Rally Monkey in Anaheim. The idea was that the puppets were a continuous thread that could be used both in commercials and in the Rogers Centre as a rallying mechanism. “The in-game puppet element didn’t quite work out as we hoped because of audio issues in the Rogers Centre,” admitted Laurel. Laurel was pleased with the success of how the creative transcended all media mediums they used: radio, TV, billboard, print. The "Now Playing" campaign helped the Club focus on the entertainment experience and deliver their brand promise. Unfortunately, she was unable to provide specifics for the 2006 campaign, only promising that the team would move forward and make adjustments from unsuccessful elements of the past.

While the success of the on-field product is what concerns most fans at the end of the day, it’s also important to not ignore the efforts of the business end of the environment. Without a healthy fiscal situation no team can continue to be competitive over a long period of time without an owner like George Steinbrenner. The Jays marketing department is instrumental in brining back fans to the Rogers Centre and ensuring that attendance and merchandising revenue provide the team with needed income and that Mr. Rogers does not lose money on the team. With an improved team for the 2006 campaign and Laurel Lindsay and the rest of consumer marketing team devoted to generating excitement around the team, I doubt I’m alone in my optimism for the future of the franchise.