David Freeman sat in a restaurant in Toronto's distillery district wearing a pair of headphones, thoroughly absorbed by a gripping video playing on the laptop before him. It was late 2013, and the Toronto Raptors' director of marketing was watching a pitch from the artistic agency Sid Lee, one that moved him so completely, he wanted to run it back to the Bay Street offices of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. and show it to colleagues.
The pitch would provide a jumping-off point for a total rebranding timed to the team's 20th-anniversary 2015 season, with new logos and uniforms. This concept of "We The North" could launch the next 20 years of NBA basketball in Toronto. It was a big job, but there was plenty of time to work on it.
Or so Freeman thought.
The Raptors had invited four local agencies to submit branding ideas, and Sid Lee's struck the perfect chord. This pitch captured the essence with images of Toronto's authentic basketball culture and the gritty Raptors – the NBA's only team outside the United States, one often disrespected or marginalized. The manifesto embraced the things that have always seemed as if they were negatives: "We are the North side, a territory all our own. If that makes us outsiders, we're in."
But in the months that followed that pitch, a funny thing happened: The Raptors transformed from an irrelevant squad to one that won the Atlantic Division, set a single-season franchise record for victories and seized a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The pitch video had made the circles at MLSE by then, and everyone was smitten, especially president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke and Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, who both wanted the campaign to be launched right away.
"We looked at the situation in the spring – the Jays didn't start strong, there was only one Canadian team in the NHL playoffs – so we thought 'This is our time to take the city and the country by the throat with Raptors basketball,'" said Freeman. "So that decision was made April 1, and our first playoff game was in about two weeks."
The creative team at Sid Lee went out and shot a 60-second commercial in Toronto in two days, one that would include no actors.
They put out a casting call for local basketball players, and talented ballers showed up on street blacktops and gyms all over town. The crew travelled from Regent Park to Jane and Finch to an outdoor court in St. James Town. They lit a Jarvis Street parking lot with a ring of fire for a powerful shot, and even had a husky dog to prowl on the court, a nod to the Toronto Huskies of 1946-47, who played in a league that would later become the NBA.
"We were asked to redefine a brand, but also the city and place we're born and raised in, so it was close to home for us," said Tom Koukodimos, executive creative director at Sid Lee, who says his team rewrote the 86-word manifesto some 20 or 30 times. "What we kept talking about was an unapologetic Canadian story. We're always trying to define ourselves as Canadians, and we said 'Enough of that, let's just demonstrate what we feel. Let's create something we look at and all nod our heads to.'"
Interestingly, the iconic shot of the black We The North flag wasn't in the original pitch. In fact, it was one of the last shots they did as the final night of shooting wore on into the wee hours. They had tried getting a shot of the black flag in the daylight and it didn't resonate. But there, in the late hours against the dark night sky, as it flapped in the cold on a quiet spot of Toronto's Cherry Street, it was stunning, and became the powerful closing shot of the commercial.
The team released the video on social networks in the days before the first playoff game on April 19. Then the buzz began. Drake and Justin Bieber both retweeted it, and it had 500,000 views in two days. The "We The North" black flag became ubiquitous at games and around the city as the Raptors and Nets locked into the series and the playoff-starved city rallied around the team inside the arena and rollicking by the thousands outside in what affectionately became Jurassic Park. We The North T-shirts were everywhere.
"It took a life of its own. It was something people identified with, something people needed – taking the perceived negativity of playing in Toronto and turning it on its head and making it a positive," said Sid Lee executive director Jeffrey Da Silva. "For the fans, I think it was something they were asking for."
"Not since the I Am Canadian campaign [by Molson in the mid-nineties] have we seen a campaign hit so many good notes and resonate so well with Canadians," said Cheri Bradish, a sports marketing professor at Ryerson University.
"It was a marketer's dream, the timing was perfect – basketball was thriving across our country, this hard-working Raptors team was making the playoffs for the first time in a long time and it demonstrated the appetite of Toronto fans for a winning team. I think it positioned the product to consumers in a great way."
The campaign didn't die with the team's first-round playoff exit. It will be on full display again as the Raptors open their new season at home Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks, when We The North T-shirts will be given out inside and outside the stadium and the mantra is painted on the court. There are three new 30-second We The North television spots launching with the new season, one in which the current Raptors revisit the courts from the original commercial and recite the same manifesto. The team plastered bus stops and billboards in Vancouver and Montreal ahead of the team's preseason games there.
"We thought, 'Why are we only speaking to the eight million people in the GTA? We should we speaking to the 35 million across Canada,'" said Shannon Hosford, MLSE's vice-president of marketing and communications. "We The North was never supposed to be a commercial; it was just supposed to be a brand manifesto. But everyone saw it and fell in love with it, and we thought basketball fans across the country would fall in love with this."
The campaign personified the city, and the players identified with it, too. "I like it, man," forward Amir Johnson said. "Whoever came up with that, I don't know, but we just ran with it."