We The North: Building a basketball brand with bounce

Almost 25 years since its original logo was unveiled, the Toronto Raptors are a part of the fabric of the North.

wethenorth

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Strategy.

On May 15, 1994, a confident John Bitove announced the “newest, freshest and hungriest look in the NBA,” while surrounded by tropical plants on a stage at Ontario Place’s Cinesphere during a half-hour TV special. The screen cut to show the first-person perspective of something quickly moving through a forest, arriving at a basketball arena. A curtain was pulled down and the Toronto Raptors name and logo were finally revealed following a months-long national naming contest.

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There have been many variations of the Toronto Raptors over the years, from those featuring the original dino mascot to ones featuring a more sleek design. 

The National Basketball Association’s (NBA) first team outside of the U.S. launched its merch line the very next day, with items being sold in stores across five continents in more than 40 countries. Canadian retailers sold everything from T-shirts to caps to coffee cups and shot glasses. About 100,000 T-shirts per week were being produced, according to a 1994 Toronto Star report.

“There was a real buzz in the city. Basketball was kind of reaching its zenith in terms of fandom,” recalls Rod Black, sportscaster and host of the Raptors’ unveiling, which took place 25 years ago this spring. “[However] people were cautiously optimistic this would work.”

There was good reason to be cautious. The Vancouver Grizzlies team came to Canada during the same heady era as the Raptors. But the country’s second NBA team didn’t last, leaving for Memphis by 2001.

But before all of that, Raptors founder Bitove – along with fellow majority co-owner Allan Slaight and minority owners David Peterson, Phil Granovsky and Borden Osmak of the Bank of Nova Scotia – were true believers that the Toronto Raptors (and basketball) would not only survive, but thrive, here. They were right, but it wasn’t easy.

The Toronto Blue Jays and SkyDome had run naming contests in the ‘70s and ‘80s, inspiring Bitove to launch the Raptors’ nationwide “Name Game” to build buzz for his future team. There were more than 2,000 entries, whittled down to the top ten: Beavers, Bobcats, Dragons, Grizzlies, Hogs, Raptors, Scorpions, T-Rex, Tarantulas, and Terriers. The ultimate winner was influenced by the immensely popular Jurassic Park movie, released in the summer of 1993.

To traditionalists’ dismay, the Raptors’ branding was a marked departure from the Toronto Huskies, a short-lived team from the Basketball Association of America (the BAA was a forerunner to the NBA) that lasted only one season in 1946. The Huskies logo featured a simple line drawing of its namesake dog and a staid blue-and-white colour scheme – a stark contrast from the 1994 Raptors branding, which featured a red dinosaur dribbling a silver basketball on a purple background.

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John Bitove at a Toronto Raptors game at the SkyDome (now called the Rogers Centre) was always confident basketball would become as beloved as hockey in Canada.

Battle for position

But in the mid-1990s, the Raptors – and the NBA – weren’t going after the traditionalists.

“Our target market from the day we got the team was to go after children, women and new Canadians. We were kind of leaving the older, white establishment to hockey,” says Bitove, who left the Raptors in 1996 and has since invested in everything from satellite radio to QSRs. “With all three of those stakeholder groups, [the branding] resonated well. As you would expect, an older white person was scratching their head going ‘What the hell is that?’ And that’s fine. That’s what we wanted.”

The Raptors came into being just as the NBA was resonating with the next generation of sports fans and finding new ways to monetize that fandom. The league makes money from ticket sales, but it also increasingly brings in revenue from TV deals, sponsorships and licensed merchandise. As the sport grew in popularity through the ‘90s and into the new century, league revenues grew in tandem. By the 2017-2018 season, the league’s 30 teams generated a whopping US$7.4 billion in record-setting revenue, according to Forbes. That’s up 25% from the year before, due in part to the league benefitting from a $24-billion TV deal with ESPN and TNT, as well as the NBA’s growing popularity in overseas markets such as China.

SidLee-RAPTORSxOVO_1Popular Raptors x OVO apparel has helped Canada’s NBA team bring in the fans and the dough.

In February 2018, the Raptors was the league’s 12th most valuable team worth an estimated $1.4 billion. But before it reached that valuation by Forbes, the Raptors had to fill the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) – a difficult task since the 53,506-person stadium was meant for baseball, not basketball.

There were tons of marketing challenges in those early days, says Michael Downey, who joined the nascent team in 1995 as VP, sales and marketing. Toronto “was an uneducated basketball market,” says Downey, who is now president and CEO of Tennis Canada. To help Canadians get better acquainted with the sport, Downey led what was internally dubbed “Basketball 101,” and included handing out leaflets to fans on basic basketball etiquette and rules. There was also a mass awareness campaign, with Cossette as the team’s first AOR.

The original owners paid a then-record setting $125-million expansion fee, leaving little budget for marketing, notes Downey. As a result, much of the advertising in those early days were contra deals with OOH, print and broadcast media companies, says Downey. And since Slaight was also a broadcast mogul who had ownership stakes in several radio stations, the Raptors ran loads of radio spots, he says.

While the team’s debut on Nov. 3, 1995 managed to draw 33,306 fans, Downey recalls later enticing warm bodies to the cavernous stadium by selling a “boatload” of $5 tickets. Those cheaper passes almost sold out just a few days after the inaugural game, with Shopper’s Drug Mart then selling seats for $26.25 a pop, according to a 1995 Star report.

By 1998, the Raptors were purchased by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), which also owns the storied Toronto Maple Leafs. The 19,800-person capacity Scotiabank Arena, then called the Air Canada Centre (ACC), opened in 1999 as the home of MLSE’s NHL and NBA teams. The new arena provided a much more intimate game experience for basketball fans, says Vijay Setlur, a marketing instructor at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

After the Grizzlies left for Memphis, the Toronto Raptors tried to capitalize on being Canada’s only NBA team, but a more radical shift was needed, says Setlur.

After the initial excitement of having an NBA team in Canada faded, the Raps entered a long “dark period,” he says. American NBA players viewed Canada as a provincial backwater and openly griped about it.

“Combine that with the team not winning,” he says. “It wasn’t very positive. The brand was kind of waffling and not really progressing.”

Hosford

Shannon Hosford scored a slam dunk when she oversaw a radical rebranding of the Toronto Raptors. 

Bringing the house down

The 20th anniversary of the first game in 2015 presented an opportunity to rebrand the team and shift perceptions, says Shannon Hosford, SVP marketing and fan experience for MLSE.

“There were a number of items we wanted to achieve, one was to be regarded as a global basketball destination, not only for fans but for players,” says Hosford, who joined MLSE in 2000.

Agencies were invited to pitch a new brand identity. Sid Lee Toronto was the shop that ultimately got called into the game.

“We weren’t just branding the Raptors, we were branding Canadian basketball,” recalls Tom Koukodimos, ECD and partner at Sid Lee Toronto. “How do you turn a hockey nation into basketball fandom? The answer wasn’t obvious – maybe it is now looking back – but we tried to lean into ‘How do you land on something that unites?’”

The team at Sid Lee ended up landing on the now iconic “We The North” campaign, essentially a battle cry that celebrates Canada’s status as an outsider. The new branding launched in the lead-up to the anniversary with a gritty 60-second anthem spot in 2014. The video had a voiceover proclaiming Canada (“the North”) to be “in a league of our own, one step removed, just beyond the boundaries,” featuring shots of Toronto landmarks, snow and people playing basketball. It ended with an image of the now ubiquitous black-and-white “We The North” flag.

The successful campaign resulted in the team selling out season tickets for the 2014/15 season, with about 12,500 sold. It also resulted in a stream of merch – from flags to hats to sweaters – becoming commonplace on the streets of Toronto and beyond. The SVP marketing and fan experience for MLSE also won many accolades for the rebranding, including being named one of Strategy‘s Marketers of the Year in 2015.

“We had heard the laundry list of complaints by players… they didn’t respect us,” acknowledges Hosford. “So we took the opportunity to turn that narrative on its head and say, ‘Here’s all the reasons why we are great and why the North is amazing and is a destination’ and really put our stamp on being an outsider and owning that.”

The Raptors received international praise, and it didn’t hurt that Drake had also become the team’s first, and only, “global ambassador” around the same time. Over the years the Toronto born-and-bred rapper has collaborated with the team on everything from Raptors x OVO jerseys to building basketball courts in underserved communities.

This partnership with a global superstar, in combination with the “We The North” movement has helped the Raptors connect with many demographics, says Setlur.

“That’s where the cool factor comes into play when you’re trying to reach a multi-ethnic audience; the Filipino community is different than the South Asian community, which is different than the Italian community,” he says. “The one constant is no matter what the idiosyncrasies are for their ethnicities they all like to be following what’s cool, what’s now, what’s popular.”

The Raptors’ updated brand has proven so popular that it’s here to stay. “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.”

Dino-mite partnerships

Scotiabank Arena_July 2018_NIGHT SHOTS  Scotiabank Arena-0292 - CopyScotiabank
The Air Canada Centre (ACC) changed its name to the Scotiabank Arena last year in a $800 million, 20-year sponsorship deal. And the bank’s Tangerine brand was named the Raps’ official bank.

Sun Life FinancialSun Life Financial
The Canadian insurance company became the team’s first jersey patch sponsor, starting in the 2017/2018 season as part of a NBA-wide three-year pilot program.

Drake
Drake

The rap superstar became the official global ambassador for the Toronto team in 2013 (pictured above in a throwback photo with Hosford). Since then, Drake and his hometown team, have partnered on everything from branded jerseys  to “Welcome Toronto” nights.
Kings Guard Gaming v Raptors Uprising Gaming Club

NBA 2K League
The team joined the NBA 2K League last year with its Raptors Uprising GC (Gaming Club). Co-founded by the NBA and Take-Two Interactive Software, the league features 17 teams of gamers competing in regular-season games, tournaments and playoffs.

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Nike
The NBA signed an eight-year partnership with Nike, which started in the 2017-2018 season. The iconic Nike swoosh logo appeared for the first time on NBA jerseys, including the Raptors, as part of a reported $1 billion deal.

Beyond The Arch
McDonald’s

The QSR signed a three-year deal with the Raptors last year, kicking off with the “Beyond the Arch” campaign. Every time the team makes more than twelve 3-point shots in a single game, fans with the My McD’s app can get a free medium French fries the day after the game.