We the North: A black flag, a Raptor’s claw, and the branding of Canadian basketball

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Tom Koukodimos remembered thinking, as he sat in an executive boardroom in Maple Leaf Square in 2014, that major athletes were probably brought into that room to sign their contracts.

This was just minutes before he and his colleague, Jeffrey Da Silva, would present their pitch for the Raptors now-iconic rebrand, and eventually become part of Toronto sports history themselves.

It was 2014 and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) executives, including CEO Tim Leiweke, would soon join them in the room, the walls of which were decorated with memorabilia from the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto FC and the Raptors. 

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“You could feel the legacy in the air, and the ambition of everyone at the table,” Koukodimos recalled.

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Koukodimos said Leiweke was “very much about building the best team, getting players, while others were talking about making fans love the team.”

“Others were talking about making sure that going to a game felt like something extremely memorable and purposeful,” he said.

The moment that stands out most for Da Silva and Koukodimos is Leiweke sitting on the arm of an armchair while everyone brainstormed out loud, and saying firmly, “Look. Listen, I just need to get players to want to play here. I need to tell players who they’re playing for,” Koukodimos explained.

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This statement seems especially prophetic in light of the recent addition of American NBA superstar and former San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors, who’s since been crowned on billboards around the city as the “King of the North.”

Da Silva and Koukodimos, of Toronto-based advertising agency Sid Lee, became creative directors on what would become the “We the North” campaign.

They partnered with MLSE to create a new identity for the Raptors, in a city embroiled in a decades-long love-affair with hockey. That same year, however, the Leafs would not make the playoffs. Da Silva and Koukodimos knew they had a window.

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“Being part of a hockey city, a hockey nation, was a little bit of the barrier for the Raptors as well,” Koukodimos added.

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The two marketers explained that while they were contracted to redesign the brand for one team, Canada’s only NBA team, they realize now that what they’d been tasked with was branding Canadian basketball.

Da Silva explained that in order to achieve this, they wanted to break from the common staples of Canadian advertising, namely the country’s cold weather.

“The bigger challenge was getting a different way of talking about being Canadian out there,” he said. “Traditionally, you’re going to see, ‘As Canadians we know how it’s going to be in the cold weather. As Canadians, we like to drink coffee. Mounties and beavers and maple syrup.'”

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“We the North” bears no resemblance to these symbols, but the black flag and claw-shaped basketball have clearly resonated with Canadians.

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The YouTube video of the original ad has been viewed over a million times, The campaign has been so successful that the brand has bled into other MLSE team branding, including the current TFC tag line, “Kings of the North.”

Cheri Bradish, a sports marketing expert and professor with Ryerson University, explained timing is key to what made “We the North” so successful.

“I think that they knew it was a coming of age,” she said. “I think you kind of reached down and pulled out the emotions of the die-hard sports fans at the same time, while speaking really generally to the ethos of Canadian nationalism.”

Bradish went on to say that at that time, the world had begun to see Toronto as a global sports city, as the Raptors were gearing up to host the All-Star game in 2016.

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“I think it’s a way to acknowledge the uniqueness of the Canadian sports market. It’s a way to acknowledge that this isn’t just our city’s team, it’s our country’s team,” Bradish said.

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At the time, however, Koukodimos and Da Silva didn’t anticipate that the campaign would become a national rallying cry.

“The truth is we did it for Toronto and we’re incredibly proud of the way that the nation has embraced it. But we really wanted to do this for Toronto. That was our goal,” Da Silva said.

“It felt like a responsibility, not an opportunity,” Koukodimos added.

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As Toronto natives and Raptors fans themselves, they feel that pride every time they attend a game or see a fan wearing a “We the North” shirt on the street.

“It’s walking down the street and seeing somebody rocking a T-shirt with a big raptors logo on it and just thinking, wow, you look good in that shirt. That’s a nice shirt,” Da Silva joked.There were some creative decisions that we made in that and it’s still relevant today and it’s and it’s more resonant than ever.”

Toronto’s Jurassic Park has been overflowing with fans during the Raptors’ playoffs run. As they take on the Golden State Warriors, makeshift “Jurassic Park” fan spots have cropped up around the Greater Toronto Area and across the country.

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Raptors fans watch Game 1 of the NBA finals on a 15 foot LED screen at Civic Square in Downtown Burlington. City of Burlington

And Da Silva and Koukodimos are cheering right along with them.

Koukodimos attended Game 6 of the semi-finals this season with a colleague, who turned to him at one point and asked him what it was like to have been part of the team’s story.

“All I could think was, I just want them to win right now,” Koukodimos said he thought at the time.

He recalls during that game, with seven seconds left on the clock, one fan started chanting “We the North.” Soon enough, the entire stadium was chanting the phrase in unison.

“My eardrums were distorting,” he said. “That’s special.”

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