“WE THE NORTH” Campaign: How the Raptors Marketing Dept. Created A Movement in Toronto

The "We The North" campaign is one of Sport's most iconic rebrands. The rollout campaign has transformed the Raptors organisation. Learn more in this piece




At the time of writing the Toronto Raptors are on the cusp of the ultimate glory in Basketball. One more win in the final series of the NBA Championship game would seal their 2019 campaign with them on top. Not only be preventing history by breaking the stranglehold the Golden State Warriors have held over the entire sport for the past 3 years, but it would be historic for Toronto for being the first time the franchise have hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy.

We will leave the basketball analysis to the experts, what is of biggest intrigue to us here at FUTURE PROOF is arguably the most iconic rebrand and impactful marketing campaign in 21st century sports.

Marketing Campaign

The purpose of a marketing campaign plan is to identify relevant, integrated, marketing activities and channels to reach campaign objectives as well as influence customers. An effective campaign plan has an engaging, shareable, campaign concept which utilises both online and offline marketing communications tools and digital media channels.

In this week’s blog we will break down exactly how the Toronto Raptors have catapulted themselves from insignificance to the brink of 2019 Basketball domination.

1. Brand Definition & Brand Values

The Raptors’ hierarchy had set an original target of the 20th anniversary of their first NBA game (2015) for the overall rebrand. After the team at Sid Lee proposed the “We the North” campaign, it was clear that the city of Toronto and basketball in Canada was never going to be the same again.

The motto was clear, edgy and raw. It was designed with the intention of showcasing Toronto for what it can be, Cold, Hard and Urban. It appealed directly to Canada’s status in the NBA as an outsider. It was a battle cry of sorts that leverages a simple slogan and hugely powerful language throughout, it generates a banner for the people of Toronto and Canada as a whole to row in behind.

“in a league of our own, one step removed, just beyond the boundaries”

The intention was clear, “We The North” was designed to spark a sense of patriotism with second- and third-generation Canadians and appeal to the similar outsider sentiment felt by new Canadians.

The 60-second ad was so popular with the Raptors decision makers that it was released a year in advance during the first round of before any mention of the rebrand was made public. The branding that this video alone provided has been the staple of all marketing activations rolled out since 2014.

The Raptor claw within the basketball icon that has become the franchise logo has moved away from the traditional slightly cartoon-ish depiction of the franchise. It was a clear move away from the moniker of “Baby Dinosaurs” that the franchise has been labelled previously. The is a subtle ferocity to the logo that ties in nicely with the simplicity of the black “We The North” flag.

We The North Campaign

You’ll notice how the “We The North” flag at the close of the video lingers at the end of the video in much the same fashion as the Nike Swoosh with “Just Do It” always in close company.

“It’s our brand identity. It’s what we’re entrenched in. It’s similar to Nike’s [Just Do It],” says Hosford. “We’re never stepping away from ‘We The North’. We create campaigns on top of ‘We The North,’ but that’s our identity.” – Shannon Hosford (MLSE Vice President of Marketing & Communications)

2. Target Market Definition

Traditionally the Raptors’ history has been littered with disregard from the basketball mainstream. Pundits argued they played a different game than in the U.S., diehard NBA fans didn’t consider them part of the culture, the Raptors were outsiders in a sport invented by a Canadian.

A conscious decision was taken to pivot towards these discussion, position the Raptors in a similar fashion to the Oakland Raiders, The Outsiders. Embrace the tag, wear it like a badge of honour and let it empower you rather than be used against you. This would mean stepping away from the Canadian nice-guy persona.

“it’s authentic, it’s about who we are as Canadians. We spun all the negative things about where we come from into a positive; it might be cold but we are the north and we’re proud of it. I think a lot of people gravitated towards the spin because it resonated with them.” – Hosford 2016

The target market was clear, Urban Culture. A powerful and diverse group that spans across a vast array of cultural backgrounds who would all unite under the flag “We The North”. They would be the ones to drive the message.

3. Brand Loyalty

The overall aim, generate a huge amount of Brand Loyalty within Toronto, the player pool and Canada as a whole. The milestones to achieving this were also clear:

  1. Make Players Want to Come to Toronto “Look. Listen, I just need to get players to want to play here. I need to tell players who they’re playing for,” – recalls Tom Koukodimos – Executive Creative Director at Sid Lee
  2. Make Fans Want to Travel to Toronto “To be regarded as a global basketball destination, not only for fans but for players” – Hosford, 2016
  3. Make Toronto a Destination for Flagship NBA Events Large Scale Basketball Events (e.g. The NBA All-Star Game)
  4. Affect the Culture Create a following with a culture that when times are good, it makes it better, and when times are bad, it’s not so bad.” – Dave Freeman (Head of Brand Marketing for MLSE)

But the challenges were even more clear:

  1. Player Perception “We had heard the laundry list of complaints by players… they didn’t respect us,” acknowledges Hosford.
  2. On-the-court Woes: Prior to the night the “We The North” video premiered, the Raptors had not even made the playoffs for 7 years.
  3. Public Perception of Visiting Toronto for Basketball: “Why would you ever want the All-Star Game in Toronto? The game happens in February, it’s freezing, Americans need passports to get here, no one will come; that’s not the best view of our city.” – per Freeman

So the Raptors took the opportunity to turn the narrative on its head. To showcase all the reasons why the North is a destination for basketball, for both players and fans alike.

“well, that’s who we are and where we’re from. Why can’t we be proud of these things instead of using them as negatives all the time?” – Freeman

4. How Did They Achieve This

It would be impossible to encapsulate all the nuances of the “We The North” campaign in just one blog post but we have focussed in on the most impactful initiatives the Raptors have rolled out and discuss how they have helped to make the “We The North” movement completely unavoidable.

We The North
  • Earned Media: All sports organisations will naturally generate a huge amount of earned media purely through the team’s performance. However, the “We The North” campaign has been so powerful that the campaign itself generates vast media coverage for the brand. The team’s performance in this year’s campaign and their tag as an underdog has provided a heightened amount of coverage and the perfect backdrop for the “We The North” campaign. Through strategic media partnerships, “We The North” received $1.1 million in earned media and generated a return on investment of 378%. But there can be no comparison to the impact that Global Brand Ambassador Drake has had on the franchise in terms of earned media since he assumed the role in 2013. The NBA and Hip-Hop have been intertwined for as long as we can remember and there can be nothing more powerful than having Hip-Hop’s leading light standing courtside willing your team on. Drake’s impact has been profound in putting the Toronto Raptors front and centre of pop culture and the mainstream media. Here, Bloomberg cover the development of Drake’s partnership with the Raptors which has a completely mutually beneficial relationship ranging from clothing partnership’s right through to resulted in the Raptors Training Facility being named the OVO Athletic Centre (October’s Very Own – Drake’s Brand). For more information and an objective view on Drake’s impact go to this piece publishedby Fortune recently.
  • Advertising: The campaign has been a platform for a huge amount of follow-up activations and advertising opportunities. But they have never strayed from the concept. They’ve done remakes of the original “We The North” with different faces, different voices, different in-game footage but always the same words, same underlying message and tone. Some examples include, this player video and this 2019 update of the original amongst others. Outside brands have even leveraged the success of the campaign. Global Shoe Brand, New Balance, used a clever play on the campaign while leveraging the relevance of a Game of Thrones “King in the North” reference to ominously predicting that Raptors’ star player Kawhi Leonard is coming for their beloved Warriors. The best part of this piece of advertising was it’s placement. Oakland, California, a Warriors stronghold.
We The North Campaign
  • Events Broadly speaking the Raptors have 82 regular season events and depending on their success in the playoffs many more opportunities for events in the form of their games. But it is not the event itself that makes the “We The North” campaign so effective. It is the carnival atmosphere and “Us Against The World” narrative that is conveyed throughout. In a very strategic manoeuvre, the Raptors have turned the common area outside the Scotia Bank Stadium into an outdoor viewing area for fans to congregate and watch their beloved Raptors. The aptly named “Jurassic Park” generates a carnivorous atmosphere and the inclusive nature of this means that they have extended the game night experience to more than those 50+ thousand who have found themselves lucky to get their hands on a ticket. Creating a huge amount of fan sentiment.
  • Digital Campaign Off the back of the campaign, The Raptors’ social channels exhibited record growth, up 300% versus the regular season, and the campaign received 157 million impressions through owned Facebook and Twitter platforms. Facebook likes increased 170% versus the 2013-2014 regular season, with Twitter followers up 130% and YouTube views up 350%. #WeTheNorth became the most-viewed video ever on the Raptors’ YouTube account with 865,000 views. The Raptors’ social following shifted from being heavily Ontario-centric to comprising of 60% non-Ontario followers. The 2014-2015 season ticket prices increased 2.5% (an average of $2 per game) with no extra promotional activity. But they have not rested on their laurels, The Raptors have continuously found new and creative ways to generate attention through their various Social Media channels 1) Content: Their array of content ranges from personal player content, to fan centric content to high-quality video production. There is behind-the-scenes and front of camera footage meshed together to make sure that the fans, and the staff of the organisation are included as part of the journey. 2) Social Activations: The Raptors have always found ways for fans to create and share their own Raptors experiences. A huge pillar of this is the annual Drake night. One example of these events was the “Hotline Bling Booth”, where fans got the chance to create their own version of the hit song recorded and shared directly across their social channels on the spot. The impact that this activation had even managed to shock the Raptors themselves.

Literally — and this number seems insane to me — but, in one day it said that we got one billion impressions, and that’s because we’re blurring the line between sports and pop culture. You have all the typical sports writers writing about it, but we also have Rolling Stone, GQ, and Billboard who are all tweeting it as well. Blurring that line between sports and pop culture, if you can get there, really drives your brand” – Dave Freeman told Forbes

  • Sponsorships Everyone is fully aware that sponsorships in sports are huge, they are a genuine revenue stream for franchises. They will always follow the same trend, the most successful team will generally bring in the most sponsorship revenue as they will receive the most exposure. But the truly unique thing about sponsorships with the Raptors is that it is not just your typical “Brand X is the proud official coffee cup of the Raptors”. No, leading brands have incorporated the “We The North” campaign into their own sponsorship advertising. Take a look at some of the examples:
We The North Campaign

5. Timing

Timing is paramount, even the best messages can fall flat if not planned and timed to perfection. Effective timing provides you with the power to control the narrative and convey your message in line with current affairs, events or the lack there-of.

The “We The North” campaign has been littered with examples of impeccable timing, their ability to keep their finger on the pulse and not only react to popular culture but to impact popular culture is remarkable.

Right before the drop of the original video:

“our GM, Masai Ujiri, went into Jurassic Park, which is our outdoor viewing area, and made a comment against the Nets that created a lot of attention. We The North is all about being outsiders: we’re doing it our own way and are proud of it.” – Dave Freeman told Forbes

The attention generated was the perfect launchpad for the gritty “We The North” video to be unveiled on night of the Raptors first play-off game for 7 years.

At FUTURE PROOF MEDIA, we believe that a comprehensive, cohesive 360 degree view of your marketing strategy is vital when trying to define your company and create your roadmap. If anyone has any questions, or would like to discuss any of the points made within this article. Just make sure to drop us a line.