The Toronto Raptors found themselves on basketball’s biggest stage over the past few weeks. After handling the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, they were tasked with facing the 3-headed-monster in Golden State with an all-star cast of Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. Even with star player Kevin Durant sidelined with an injury, the Toronto Raptors would have to overcome their biggest challenge yet in their first finals trip in franchise history.

As all eyes turned towards Toronto, many marketing campaigns began to materialize. However, before these campaigns could be possible, the primary branding of the Toronto Raptors was years in the making.

We The North

In 2014, the Toronto Raptors were celebrating their 20th anniversary as a franchise. To them, this seemed like an appropriate time to re-brand. They finally had a respectable, young squad, they were billed to host the all-star game the next year, and global phenom Drake had begun to endorse the Raptors to his fullest capabilities. The breakthrough was the coining of the phrase “We The North”. This campaign was the brainchild of Canadian digital agency Sid Lee. As stated on their website:

“We The North” isn’t a campaign, but an example of how an identity-shaping truth can spark a brand crusade.

This statement holds true as this 3-word phrase started a national uproar of patriotism. The “We The North” campaign was carried out via a branding video that was used during the 2014 season.

The battle cry was bought into by a variety of Canadian celebrities, from Justin Bieber, to Rob Ford and even the Prime Minister at the time Stephen Harper. In Sid Lee’s case study, they stated that once the campaign was launched, the #wethenorth hashtag was the top trending tweet for two weeks straight. Within that year, through a sizeable social buy-in from Canadians, the “We The North” video had gathered over half a billion impressions worldwide.

This brilliant campaign was a significant success. Ticket sales were up, a broad line of “We The North” merch began to prosper, and Canadian basketball began to get the recognition it deserved.

The branding stuck and continued for each proceeding season. During the Raptors championship run in 2019, “We The North” was used as a statement for not only Canadian basketball, but the Canadian people. To me, the main message I take away from this campaign is that we may be outsiders looking in, but we embrace the challenge and demand the respect and recognition that we deserve.

Now that there was buy-in to what the Toronto Raptor’s represented, this paved the way for an unlikely spokesperson to humanize “We The North”.

Seat A-12

The 2019 championship Raptors team had some major stars. “Fun Guy” Kawahi Leonard, the face of the franchise Kyle Lowry, undrafted star-in-the-making Fred VanVleet and Pascal “Spicy P” Siakam were all integral cogs in their Finals run. However, one improbable star emerged as the newest member of the Toronto Raptors Family this June in “SuperFan” Nav Bhatia. Nav, a car dealership owner, has attended every Raptors home game for the past 24 years. For every home game, Nav sits in seat A-12, courtside, right under the basket. As the Raptors have been a paltry franchise for the majority of two decades, Nav has stuck through thick and thin, slowly gaining more and more recognition. This year, during their finals run, Nav gained international stardom and was named “SuperFan” and community ambassador of the Toronto Raptors. He embodied the multi-cultural patriotism that Canada represents. He became an overnight celebrity.

Nav found himself as an influencer in the middle of some major marketing campaigns throughout the playoffs. He was used as a model for multi-culturalism and loyalty in Canada. Two organizations took advantage of Nav’s popularity by featuring him in commercials that aired during the playoffs.

Tourism Toronto rolled out a destination marketing campaign aimed to boast the diverse culture that Toronto brings. Among rolling shots of cultural cuisine, the CN tower, and the Raptors, Nav is featured as a celebrity, walking out to a group of paparazzi. Tourism Canada is seizing the moment as Nav had become one of the most recognizable faces during these playoffs.

In addition, Tim Hortons rolled out a touching commercial focused on the diversity and loyalty that Canada represents. Nav is the main focus here, speaking in monologue form. He touches on his commitment to the team and the diversity that he represents to everyone watching. Tim Horton’s seamlessly ties in thoughts of racism, diversity, multi-culturalism and patriotism into a 1-minute long commercial. This was some brilliant marketing from a doughnut and coffee shop.

Overall, these marketing campaigns may not have helped Toronto overcome all odds to win the championship physically, but the years of brand building and the human aspect made the win bigger than basketball. Canada has officially flown their “We The North” flag to the masses.