2019 Brand of the Year: OVO started from the bottom…

Now October's Very Own is creating hype at a level Canadian brands rarely see.


This week, strategy is rolling out profiles of the 2019 Brands of the Year. To read about the long-term plans and build-building strategies behind the rest of this year’s winners, click here.

This story originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of strategy.

The three brains behind October’s Very Own (OVO) are masters in building hype.

Take the recent opening of an OVO store in Toronto’s Eaton Centre as an example of how the brand threw consumers just enough crumbs to feed the hype machine. Prior to the store’s debut, OVO posted photos of a young guy with bleached-blonde hair and a “OVO Eaton Centre exclusive tee” that read: “Yonge Street Dreams.” The post reached the brand’s 1.3 million Instagram followers and helped convince (mostly Gen Z and millennial) fans to get up early on the August long weekend for a first peek of the Toronto brand’s boutique-style store. The opening also coincided with the ninth annual OVO Fest, which meant The Six was full of hip fans ready to eat up what OVO was serving.

This is classic OVO. Like a song crafted by two of the co-founders (Aubrey “Drake” Graham and Noah “40” Shebib), the brand slowly builds excitement with a beat that gets faster until fans are screaming out for more. Now, of course, one could argue having Toronto’s very own Drake as OVO’s personal hypeman is the main reason for the brand’s success, but there’s been plenty of celeb-backed businesses that have failed (remember Outkast’s eponymous clothing line? Neither do we). The three co-founders (the third being Oliver El-Khatib), creative collaborators and friends have taken a deliberate slow-and-steady approach to ultimately win a Brand of the Year title.

NEW_Oliver-Canon-Portrait03-8594c2_1_1_V2_cropOVO started as the seed of an idea in 2008 and has blossomed into an influential Toronto-based brand with about 50 staff who design, produce and manufacture art, music, clothing and accessories, as well as special collaborations. During that time, the trendsetting brand has taken the art of driving consumers into a frenzy for limited-edition collabs to a level that’s rare in Canada. OVO’s savvy co-founders have global goals, but have stayed true to their hometown roots, while consistently selling out everything from sleek OVO Toronto Raptors shirts to OVO Summit tickets (an immersive conference for creatives and lifestyle entrepreneurs).

“Our goal is to continue to establish OVO as a global lifestyle brand,” said El-Khatib. “Success to us is measured by happiness and that’s derived from doing what we love. We have remained consistent and stuck to our vision and I believe this yields a certain authenticity that connects with people.”

That authenticity traces back eleven years ago, when Drake was mostly known as that cute actor from Degrassi: The Next Generation but was gaining attention for his mixtapes. Back then, the trio started a blog with the name OVO (the name is a reference to Drake’s October 24 birthday that only his die-hard fans would understand).

And the brand’s logo, a line drawing of an owl, had humble beginnings as another insidery reference, this time to El-Khatib’s vaguely owlish chat status symbol he frequently used on BlackBerry Messenger. OVO tinkered with its now-iconic logo for years before it was unveiled in 2011.

Like Nike’s swoosh or McDonald’s golden arches, OVO’s owl visually telegraphs the brand in a single symbol. And seeing that owl, often rendered in gold on a black background, gives outsiders the feeling that they’re insiders and that they’re in the know about Drake and his definitely hipper-than-thou crew.

NOAH SHEBIB-NEWWhile OVO has a boutique store just east of Toronto’s so-hip-it-hurts Trinity Bellwoods Park since 2014, it’s recently gone a little more mass market with stores in major malls, including Square One and Yorkdale Shopping Centre. It’s also opened stores in Vancouver, Chicago, N.Y.C, L.A. and London.

While the Canadian brand has expanded well beyond our borders, collaborating with other homegrown brands remains key.

“Where we [come] from as individuals is a big part of who we are as a brand and for us it’s natural to work with brands we have grown up with [and] that influence our everyday lifestyle,” said El-Khatib. “Collaborations allow us to tell a more complete story about OVO’s unique point of view on fashion and style to the world.”

Over the years, OVO has collaborated with many iconic brands with Canadian connections, including the Raptors (which Drake is also an official ambassador of), retailer Roots, twin designers, parka brand Canada Goose and RBC.

Dani Reiss, president and CEO of Canada Goose, says he has known Drake since the early 2000s when the fellow Toronto-based brand would make custom jackets for the star and his crew. He says the ongoing business relationship with OVO naturally evolved over time.

OVO_TakashiMurakami_2259“I’ve always strongly believed that Canadians need to support Canadians,” said Reiss. “In 2010 we launched annual Canada Goose x OVO collaborations, which push the boundaries of creativity for our fans and theirs. We’ve seen amazing success with these collaborations since the first bomber [jacket] launched almost a decade ago [and our collabs] continue to sell out within minutes.”

And this summer RBC became the most recent Canadian company to officially collaborate with OVO. The collab launched with a splashy one-minute ad, “RBC + OVO ft. Oliver El-Khatib,” and garnered widespread attention because of the unexpected pairing of a bank and lifestyle brand. The video features a soundtrack scored by “40” Shebib and imparts an inspiring message about investing in oneself. It has snagged almost 350,000 views on RBC’s YouTube channel since late June. The brands have also worked together to support the next generation of self-starters at the OVO Summit, which, like most things, OVO sells out in minutes.

“OVO has… become an internationally recognized brand while staying true to its Canadian roots. They are brilliant operators and can teach a masterclass in everything from branding, to music, to retail, all of which they execute with a high degree of professionalism,” said Mary DePaoli, EVP and CMO of RBC.

Next up for the Canadian business, as El-Khatib puts it, is continuing “to establish OVO as a global lifestyle brand.” To that end OVO is set to open its 10th store, and its first store in Asia, in Tokyo this October. The new store is a big step forward, as OVO had previously not shipped to Asia, so there will also be a new online store to reach that lucrative market. And in true OVO style this all coincides with the Raptors’ exhibition games in Japan’s capital city.

And if the past is any predictor of the future, then it’s likely hats and shirts adorned with its owl logo will be just as big in Japan (where logo-adorned everything sell like hotcakes) as they are in Canada. Like its Eaton Centre store opening, OVO is primed to once again teach a masterclass in hype – this time on the global stage.