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the new business normal

The exuberant fans who packed Maple Leaf Square in Toronto for each Raptors playoff game this spring were proof that an improved product and a revamped brand can expand a customer base.Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

It was all going so well.

The Toronto Raptors, back in the National Basketball Association playoffs for the first time in six years, seemed a reinvigorated, rebranded franchise, emboldened with the street cred of Canadian rapper Drake and a savvy, social-media-ready #WeTheNorth marketing campaign. With a packed house inside Air Canada Centre in downtown Toronto fervently awaiting the opening tip-off for Game 1 against the Brooklyn Nets last month, general manager Masai Ujiri had a massed throng of fans congregating outside the building hanging on his every word. Memorably, he saved the best for last.

"F*** Brooklyn," he bellowed, immediately setting every smartphone in the 416 area code a-twitter and spawning a spin-off industry of knock-off T-shirts, to say nothing of winding up every basketball fan in Brooklyn, N.Y. But strangely, his loose-lipped faux pas may have actually enhanced the team's overall rebranding from a losing entity represented by a cuddly dinosaur mascot to a fiercely proud competitor that depicts this entire country. In a rare moment of authenticity, it allowed the fans to see the passionate side of one of the team's key decision-makers.

"Whether you agree with Masai saying that, whether you think it's appropriate or anything else, these people aren't just saying one thing and doing another," says Dustin Rideout, vice-president of strategy for Sid Lee, the Canadian creative services agency that dreamed up both the We the North campaign and Toronto FC's Bloody Big Deal initiative this year.

"They wear their hearts on their sleeves, and sometimes when we wear our hearts on our sleeves, we express things in ways we didn't want to or come across in ways we didn't want. So I think all that does is show that the heart is in the right place, and that's why people will connect with this organization."

Even though the team ended up losing the series in heartbreaking fashion, it seems more connected with the country as a whole than it was before, with record-breaking TV audiences. But that shift didn't come about by chance.

"As marketers in this new, evolved world, you're almost crafting the potential story with how it's going to be delivered in social [media] and PR," says Vito Piazza, president and partner at Sid Lee. "The Raptors stuff … you saw a fundamental building of this need for identity and expressing it, and that positioning and that campaign really just brought that to light and connected it to the team."

WestJet Airlines Ltd. hoped to tap into much the same sense of national pride when it entered into a partnership with the Toronto Blue Jays two years ago. Like the Raptors, the Blue Jays are the only Canadian franchise in their sport, and for an airline with headquarters in Calgary looking to boost its standing in Toronto, the partnership seemed a good fit for both brands.

"The initial conversations were around two key factors," says Corey Evans, manager of sponsorship, community investment and experiential marketing at WestJet. "One was a flagship in Toronto, and the other was we were launching eight times daily [flights] to La Guardia [airport in New York] and obviously there's a connection there with the Yankees and Mets being down in and around that area. …

"Early on, our first activations were really based around that New York route, and then it grew over the past two years to include more co-branded messaging."

That messaging has culminated in Blue Jays-branded airplanes and a variety of TV and Internet spots showing a few of the team's stars engaging with WestJet employees in various airport-related scenarios. It's a relationship that's beneficial for both parties, according to some in the know.

"I think it's a great fit because from a brand alignment standpoint there's a lot of congruence in that the Blue Jays are trying, if they aren't already, to be Canada's baseball team and they view the entire country as their market," says Vijay Setlur, a sports-marketing instructor at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto. "So when the Blue Jays play on the road, not only in cities close to the border like Seattle or Detroit or Minneapolis, there are Blue Jay fans in many road cities, even in Philadelphia and in cities further south.

"So just as the Blue Jays are trying to cultivate the entire country as its market, WestJet also sees an opportunity in that as the Blue Jays have more success in doing that, more fans may be inclined to travel and see the team play in cities that may be closer to them in terms of flights."

The ability to use the social media-ready spots to spread the WestJet message is also still somewhat uncharted territory. WestJet experienced off-the-charts success last year with its Christmas Miracle video, in which a WestJet Santa asks passengers what they wanted for Christmas and then delivers the gifts to the luggage conveyor belt at their destination. According to Mr. Evans, that video spot spread to every country in the world, with the exception of North Korea and Kosovo.

"Social media does offer a couple of advantages," says Mr. Setlur. "One, it's an opportunity to break through the clutter that comes from traditional advertising, but on top of that, it's an affordable way to convey their brand message in a way that creates buzz. One-way communication, whether it's on television or in a newspaper, doesn't do that."

The recent Los Angeles Clippers controversy surrounding the alleged racist comments by owner Donald Sterling, or last year's Lance Armstrong fallout when the seven-time Tour de France-winning cyclist admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs, clearly show that a brand can take a precipitous nosedive in the face of a public backlash. But that is always the risk in our constantly evolving social media-savvy world.

"We need to be stewards for our clients and how their brands come to life," says Mr. Piazza. "What that means is what they say and how they say it and all that. We also need to be stewards in how we manage their presence overall, and that's a different approach than what it was 15 years ago.

"Fifteen years ago we would spend the bulk of our time trying to optimize the brand pyramid around the brand; now we spend the bulk of our time in terms of trying to reinvent its presence and generating attention and relationships for a brand, on an evolving basis."