The footage is calculated to be gritty: a menacing wolf stalking the courts alongside local basketball players, the weathered backboards, the piercing eyes of a competitor. And it feels familiar.
The latest "My North" campaign from retailer Sport Chek – producing mini-documentaries on basketball subculture in nine Toronto neighbourhoods – is an overt attempt to latch on to the marketing image and new-found cool factor of the Toronto Raptors. A year and a half ago, the idea that the Raptors brand had any broad cachet would have been laughable. But the team's rise has been so fast and undeniable that its sponsor has created advertising meant to fit "hand in glove" with the Raptors' "We the North" brand campaign.
"We knew within three to five years [that] the Raptors would be a strategic opportunity for us," said Duncan Fulton, senior vice-president at Sport Chek parent company Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd., referring to the company's expectations when it signed on as a sponsor of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. in September, 2013. "… The fact that the Raptors caught fire was more than we expected."
If the two campaigns have a similar look, there is a reason: It was Canadian Tire executives who recommended their advertising agency, Sid Lee, to MLSE. Sid Lee was charged with leading the Raptors rebrand – a project still in progress – in January, 2014.
The success in building the team's profile is crucial to one of Sport Chek's biggest challenges: making strides in the Greater Toronto Area. While it is the largest market in the country, only one of Sport Chek's top 10 performing stores nationwide is in the GTA. The area accounts for roughly 40 per cent of Sport Chek's total sales. But it should be more: In many categories that Sport Chek sells, such as footwear, the GTA accounts for closer to 50 per cent of nationwide sales across all retailers.
Partly, that will be addressed by opening more stores in the area, a priority Sport Chek has announced in the past. But it also needed to build credibility with a younger generation of customers.
"From the outset, the objective was, 'How do we get Sport Chek tied into the Raptors and specifically to We the North?'" said David Hopkinson, chief commercial officer at MLSE. "A complementary objective was how we authenticate Sport Chek in the space. They are not a company that previously tied themselves to basketball at all. You can't just come out and say, 'Hey, we're basketball now.'"
The campaign launched in October, calling on nine neighbourhoods in the GTA to tell their basketball stories. Since then, the company has been making online mini-documentaries, one for each neighbourhood, produced by BCE Inc.-owned TSN. TSN's resources mean they can turn around video content sometimes in less than a day – or for a more complex four– to five-minute documentary, 10 days on average – when comparable material would mean a multiweek shoot with an ad agency.
It also signals a pivot in how Sport Chek intends to allocate its marketing dollars in response to changing habits. Some consumers are just as likely to watch a video on their phones as they are to turn on a TV broadcast.
"The scope and scale of change in the last two years is unprecedented," said Nathalie Cooke, vice-president of integrated marketing and partnerships at TSN. "...We are being challenged by our advertisers to come up with more, and unique, content."
"Increasingly, video content is becoming a new medium to communicate. We need the ability to create hundreds and hundreds of videos to distribute through different channels," Mr. Fulton said. "The traditional, old agency model doesn't set itself up – they can't seem to do a seven-second video for $2,000. They're not built like that."
This week, Canadian Tire will put out a request for proposal (RFP) to consider video-production companies produce content that the company plans to share on social media more often in the coming years.
It's a bid for Sport Chek to connect with younger consumers. The Raptors partnership is perfect for that right now: success is the best marketing for a sports team. Slick marketing, and rapper Drake's boosterism, haven't hurt either. Hipsters who used to see the Jurassic Park-themed Raptors brand as lame and passé are snapping up hats and "We the North" shirts. Television ratings for games are up 94 per cent compared to this time last year, and Raptors videos on YouTube are 3.6 times higher. Their videos on NBA.com outstrip every other team in the league. Merchandise sales have doubled, and "We the North" merchandise accounts for 30 per cent of total sales.
In March, Sport Chek is launching its own line of "My North" Adidas merchandise, with designs tailored to each neighbourhood. But the Raptors momentum may be enough to carry beyond just the local market. Sport Chek reached an agreement with the National Basketball Association to waive the usual local restrictions on marketing a team sponsorship: "My North" merchandise will appear in stores across the country.
Last week, Twitter's data team published an interactive map showing NBA fans by geography: perhaps not surprising, Canada was mostly painted Raptors red (except for some pockets of L.A. Lakers loyalty, mostly in the West.
"Finding a way to connect with younger, urban customers is critical," Mr. Fulton said.