The creative brainstorming process leading to the pitch meeting would take four to five weeks. For Sid Lee, a creative services firm who lists Red Bull, Absolut Vodka and Cirque du Soleil among its clients, this particular request presented a different type of challenge. Vito Piazza—the president and founding partner of the firm—and a dozen or so core members of the group were presented with a mandate from senior management at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment: help us turn the Toronto Raptors into Canada's team.
The end result was We The North, a slogan, or campaign, or rallying cry, that's been embraced across Canada, and widely mocked outside of it. To come up with this pitch, Piazza and his team did their usual due diligence and studied the position of the product they were working on in relation to the rest of the market. In their search to understanding where the Raptors stood as an NBA franchise, Sid Lee came upon the same position no matter how they looked at it: the Raptors were outsiders. Instead of running away from that perception, the marketing campaign would embrace and elevate that status of unbelonging. When the pitch was made to MLSE, the reception was overwhelmingly positive. Tim Leiweke—the president of MLSE—would later tell Piazza the We The North slogan was the best thing he's seen yet in his career.
On the court, the team was making a surprise run to the playoffs. The Raptors would finish with 48 wins and a division title. The We The North campaign was moved up ahead of schedule to take advantage of the buzz surrounding the team heading into the postseason. A We The North video was shown first to the players, then management, and finally introduced to the public.
The Raptors fan base has an inferiority complex, fostered through two decades of watching a mostly inept franchise in a city where none of the major professional sports teams have accomplished anything since the early 1990s. The Raptors have one playoff series win in franchise history, and one of their banners at the Air Canada Centre celebrates the fact they had an inaugural season. If the fan base feels inferior, or slighted, or disrespected, it's because the team has not done anything sustainable to warrant attention. We The North was not going to change any of those things overnight, but it helped galvanize the fan base, giving it a way to define its attitude and connect through a slogan. When the Raptors made their first playoff appearance in six seasons, thousands of fans arrived outside of the arena to cheer. Even though Toronto lost in the first round to the Brooklyn Nets, the overall experience captured the city. The team and its brand had something to build on.
It's now a year later. The Raptors are in the playoffs once again, setting a franchise record with 49 wins and winning a second consecutive Atlantic Division title. But their uneven play over the last three months of the regular season carried over into the playoffs, where Toronto lost its first two games at home to the Washington Wizards. Everything was threatening to fall apart.
Toronto fans cheer on the Raptors outside the Air Canada Centre during a playoff game against Washington. —Photo by Chris Young/The Canadian Press
It's early Friday morning, and the Raptors are playing Game 3 in Washington that evening. I'm at Pearson Airport in Toronto catching a flight to the game. As the wait at customs becomes more excruciating by the minute, I kill time by scouring the growing lineup behind me for fans who are also leaving Toronto with the same purpose in mind. It's hard not to notice who the traveling Raptors fans are. If it's not a hat, a hoodie, a flag sticking out of a luggage bag, and in one case all three, it seems like everyone who cheers for the team has bought into the We The North merchandising push.
At the Verizon Center, I'm on an elevator to my seat with several Wizards fans who have found out after a few lines of questioning that I'm from Toronto. "Can you please explain to me this whole We The North thing," one of them asks me, with a slight tinge of curiosity but mostly because people from other places find it fascinating, if not a bit tacky.
I struggle to formulate a concrete response, only to tell them it's to push the Raptors as Canada's team. This is the thing—in Toronto, no one has to explain why Drake refers to the city as "The Six", or what We The North means, or why next season's new jerseys feature a Drake alternate (actually, don't ask me about that last one). The branding is niche, a fact not lost on Shannon Hosford, the marketing and communications vice president at MLSE. "The unity is what makes it so authentic," Hosford tells me. "We don't want someone (in another city) to fully understand it. They just couldn't possibly identify with our experience in the NBA over the years. It's ours and ours alone."
The sense of ownership plays as a positive, but this type of individualism can also open up room for ridicule, particularly given the Raptors' underwhelming history of success. It was no different this time around. The Wizards completed a thoroughly convincing sweep of the Raptors in the first round.
"Fucking Paul Pierce," George Stroumboulopoulos says in frustration when we talk about the series a few weeks after its conclusion. He mutters it a few more times for effect. Stroumboulopoulos is the anchor of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, has hosted several talk shows and was an NBA reporter for a local radio station earlier on in his career. Aside from being a popular media personality, he's a lifelong Raptors fan and recognizes the value of We The North to the country.
"This is a city and country where basketball doesn't get talked about enough," Stroumboulopoulos says. "(We The North) is a little wink. It's a handshake, a fist bump, a password. It lets everybody know we're in this together."
Unity, togetherness, a sense of self. These are the keywords when you talk to anyone about the campaign. The messaging is consistent at different levels of the franchise. Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri often espouses about the importance of chemistry. The team is promoted as a tight-knit group. Before the playoffs, a "Family First" mural was installed inside the locker room. Things are not always so congenial. To embrace the outsider status, you also have to step outside your comfort zone sometimes, as Ujiri did in back-to-back postseason addresses to fans, first by yelling "Fuck Brooklyn", then responding to Pierce's trash talk about Toronto with more profanity.
"Those moments are very We The North," Hosford says when asked whether Ujiri's responses are, in essence, very on-brand. "It unites our fan base as outsiders and finally shows us standing up and defending our turf. Canadians are typically regarded as very polite and apologetic, but We The North shows we are fiercely proud of where we're from and we will not back down."
The attitude can be inspiring and commendable given the franchise feels like it's still trying to find its footing and establish an identity moving forward after 20 years in the league. But in the "We The North" era, the Raptors have a 3-8 playoff record, including 2-4 at home, and have been eliminated in the first round in back-to-back seasons. What happens when a successful branding campaign is met with a product that fails to deliver?
Raptors fans clinging on to hope. —Photo by Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Hosford thinks the campaign can inspire the team regardless of the results on the floor. After all, there is enough on the horizon to keep the campaign going. "I expect We The North to reach new heights next February (when All-Star Weekend is held in Toronto)," she said. "Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian, invented the game of basketball and really started the We The North movement 125 years ago. We'll celebrate the invention of the game by a Canadian at All-Star Weekend which will really bring We The North full circle."
Piazza can't put his finger on whether there's an expiration date to the campaign. "The longevity is actually amplified when it's a sports brand," he said. "The level of emotional connection is much more intense. There's something very identity shaping about a professional sports team and brand. We The North brings it to another level. As such, it has an opportunity to last for awhile."
It's a week after the Raptors have been eliminated by the Wizards. I'm walking around the downtown Toronto core. As I make my way through the Eaton Centre, I see many teenagers in their We The North caps and hoodies. There's no sense of pride as I see them. It feels a little embarrassing, really, given how the team's season ended. For Stroumboulopoulos, these teens may be the most important fans to capture.
"The biggest impact of (We The North) will be with the five, ten, 12-year-olds," Stroumboulopoulos says. "If you get behind a team at that age, it becomes your team. I think (the Raptors) will solidify their position in the market if they create a tradition of winning. You have to win. You have to be hypercompetitive for it to take hold."
Studies have shown that winning teams do in fact leave the biggest imprint on sports fans at a young age. Piazza calls this group, which he says is the demographic they wanted to target and key in on for We The North, "millennial partners in ball." They are the new generation of fans who see basketball as a sport they love but also a lifestyle choice. With We The North, the Raptors have created a canvas upon which they can start painting a new picture for this generation of fans. Those fans, fully behind the local, grassroots movement that shuns outsiders, may have the opportunity to celebrate something unique in Toronto sports: a sustainable winning product on the floor.
This is the bet the Raptors have made. We The North is theirs, and theirs only. The team doesn't care if people outside don't understand it, but the real risk is if people don't even care to talk about it at some point. If the Raptors continue to build on the success of the past two seasons and become a formidable team in the league, it will help shift the conversation from the slogan to the franchise's ascent. In this strange way, while We The North appears to have established itself with the fans, it will truly be relevant when it's no longer something anyone feels compelled to talk about.