How a nation thrived as outsiders in a game they invented
I’ve seen this Youtube video hundreds of times before and it still gives me chills.
“Far from the east side.
Miles from the west side.
Nowhere near the south side.
We are the North Side.
A territory all our own.
If that makes us outsiders…
The words like poetry, the footage gritty and raw, displaying a side of Toronto many have not seen before. Canadians are used to having Hockey forged into their identity. They are used to the Tim Hortons commercials, the jingle of Hockey Night in Canada, and friends reliving the Sidney Crosby golden Olympic game winner.
But concrete courts between highrises, swishes through chain meshes, and one-handed slams in the 6ix? These images felt completely new, in a good way. #WeTheNorth was an identity many could get behind as hard working Torontonians. Raptor fans are often ostracized and forgotten being the only Canadian representation in the NBA.
But their weakness...was now their strength.
“in a league of our own, one step removed, just beyond the boundaries.”
Toronto is and always will be “the Mecca'' of Hockey. However, Masai Ujiri and the Toronto Raptors have laid claim to Toronto simply by winning basketball games. Bringing home the first championship for a franchise doesn’t hurt either.
With the launch of the #WetheNorth campaign, the marketing team at Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) set their targets on a much larger goal: uniting an entire nation through basketball.
Here’s how they did it.
The rebrand and the four-year plan
The Toronto Raptors were bordering on becoming irrelevant in 2011. Other teams in the city like the Blue Jays and TFC were way ahead of them in building something sustainable. So MLSE did what any good organization would do, they made a plan to reemerge.
The four-year plan was set to rebrand everything about the team, from the logo, to the uniforms, to the iconography. Their goal was to target large scale basketball events like the NBA All Star game and build a cult-like following for a team that lacked an identity at the time.
Dave Freeman, Head of Brand Marketing for MLSE recalls going to higher level management asking to apply for the All-Star Game. Someone on the MLSE board said,
“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.”
This was not exactly what the team wanted to hear, but it got them thinking. How could they turn their disadvantage into an advantage? Sure Toronto is far away for most destinations, yes it is cold here in the winter, but it’s part of who Canadians are.
MLSE needed to design a campaign to make Canadians proud of their identity instead of ashamed. Our one big advantage? Representing an entire nation as the only Canadian team in the NBA.
That’s where Sid Lee came in.
Partnership with Marketing Agency Sid Lee
Five years after launching the #WeTheNorth campaign, Sid Lee Toronto’s co-managing partner Tom Koukodimos went to witness the success of the campaign first hand. Sitting in platinum seats at the Scotia Bank Arena, 20,000 fans voiced their happiness the best way they knew how, by chanting.
“WE THE NORTH! WE THE NORTH! WE THE NORTH!”
“That’s maybe the most important evaluation criteria for is [a campaign] successful, especially five years later,” says Koukodimos, who was part of the original team that birthed life into the campaign. MLSE originally engaged in talks with Sid Lee in 2011.
Together, they came up with the slogan: We The North. Simple, short, and straight to the point. The mantra embodies the idea that Canadians are outsiders playing a game they invented. That's right, basketball was invented by a Canadian, Dr. James Naismith.
It’s a Canadian game. And the campaign turned all the perceived negatives of playing in Toronto on their head.
F$&# Brooklyn! The success of #WetheNorth
In 2014, Toronto Raptors traded away Rudy Gay and accidently became competitive. The team made the playoffs, a place they had not seen in seven long years. A euphoria exploded in the city, not seen since Vince Carter. Even though the campaign was planned to launch in 2015, Sid Lee and MSLE decided to capture this epic moment.
MSLE launched a one-minute #WeTheNorth video on Youtube that has over 1 million views to date. It was the beginning of a new era of Toronto Raptors basketball, a defining moment. Both on and off the court.
To add fuel to the fire, a few days later President of Basketball Operation Masai Ujiri took the stage in front of five-thousand rowdy Raptor fans outside of Scotiabank Arena. The Raptors were set to play the opening game of their playoff series with the bad guy Brooklyn Net and he had a message for them.
His actions were deliberate. It’s a clip that simply demands to be rewatched regardless if you agree with his words. It’s a big FU to not only to Brooklyn, but to the entire NBA.
With #WeTheNorth vibrating in the minds of Raptor fans, the expletive outburst was perfectly on brand, and exactly what the campaign needed.
Masai had five-thousand people in a frenzy before the game. He was subsequently fined by the NBA, but the positive damage was done. ESPN , Sports Illustrated, and even Charles Barkley and the broadcast team at TNT talked about it.
Through strategic media partnerships, the “We The North” campaign received $1.1 million in earned media and generated a return on investment of 378%.
The Raptors lost that series in 7 games, but #WetheNorth movement was just beginning.
A king rises and arrives in the North
Four long years pass in the north and it seems like the winters only get colder for Raptor fans. It's 2017 and the Raptors have made the conference finals for the first time in their history.
Demar Derozan is balling, Kyle Lowry is being a bulldog, and Raptors look poised to finally make it past Lebron. But they didn’t. The raptors lost that series in convincing fashion and the third time in three years our season was ended by Lebron.
It was time for a changing of the guard. And someone needed to be the “sacrificial lamb.”
Enter: Kawhi Leonard. With the KLAW in toe, the Raptors became legitimate contenders. Kawhi, always an off-beat kind of guy, so it made perfect sense that he inked a deal with New Balance, a company that is known for shoes for old people, not basketball kicks.
New Balance jumped on the #WeTheNorth train and launched a series of billboards across the bay-area targeting the champion Golden State Warriors. New Balance’s classic black and white branding synced with the modern update on the raptors typography.
The campaign was gritty, personal, and thrived off the same energy that inspired the “outsiders in a game we invented,” mentality. The best part about it: the Raptors backed it up.
Winter is Coming
In my humble opinion, the #WetheNorth campaign is the most successful marketing campaign in Canadian sports. It not only succeeded in rebranding a team and making Toronto a desirable destination for athletes, but it unified a nation against a common enemy: the rest of the NBA.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that Game of Thrones was going hard into its 4th season when the marketing teams started conceptualizing this piece. Once you meet the wildlings and the northerners, it’s easy to see how the MLSE and the Sid Lee teams used the popular show for inspiration.
The Starks, like the Raptors are hard working, defense-first warriors. They are constantly in preparation for the long winters and are defenders of the North. We The North sounds like something Ned Stark would say before charging into battle.
With their new slogan and championship in tow, the Raptors have become the Kings of the North.
Now it's about defending their throne.