The once seemingly impossible had just become reality. With a come-from-behind 100-94 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Toronto Raptors had secured their first-ever berth in the NBA Finals.
Tom Koukodimos, Sid Lee Toronto’s co-managing partner, was sitting in Section 113, row 15 seat 1 as the chant he had helped bring to life five years earlier began cascading around Scotiabank Arena—20,000 fans giving full voice to more than two decades of elation that had been kept in check by countless misfires, miscues and mistakes. Not to mention LeBron.
“WE THE NORTH! WE THE NORTH!”
“That’s maybe the most important evaluation criteria for is [a campaign] successful, especially five years later,” says Koukodimos, who was part of what he describes as a “fleet” of Sid Lee personnel who conceived and birthed “We the North.”
We live in an age of ephemerality, when even the most resonant concepts and ideas are chewed up, spit out and promptly forgotten as we move on to the next social media phenomenon. Yet “We the North” has endured, gaining in stature and becoming a rallying cry for a franchise and a fanbase that has come to revel in its “outsider” status.
In a league in which 29 of the 30 franchises are located in the U.S., the Raptors represent the hopes not just of a city, but an entire nation—and “We the North” has become a fundamental part of their identity.
Taglines have no bearing on a team’s performance, but a legitimate argument could be made that the April 16, 2014 introduction of “We the North” is a signature moment in the franchise’s growth as a brand, a dividing line between its often painful past and a prideful future. America—and by extension its sports leagues—is a nation that tends to favour assimilation, but with “We the North,” the Raptors and their fans were unequivocal: We stand apart.
Now, with only a historically good Golden State Warriors team standing between the Raptors and Canada’s first NBA championship, there has been renewed interest in “We the North” and its role in shaping and reflecting the team’s identity.
Speaking with The Message at Sid Lee’s West End Toronto offices just two days before the start of the NBA Finals, executive creative director and partner Jeffrey Da Silva mentions that he’s been fielding interview requests from multiple media outlets seeking to contextualize the Raptors’ historic run and the rejuvenation that “We the North” seemed to portend.
The origins of “We the North” can be traced, in part, to a “bloody big deal” from earlier that year—shortly after American Tim Leiweke had taken over as president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), and Da Silva had arrived at Sid Lee.
Da Silva had only recently returned from London, where he oversaw the shoot for one of his very first ads with Sid Lee. “It’s a bloody big deal” was a humorous campaign promoting former Tottenham Hotspur striker Jermain Defoe’s ultimately ill-fated signing with Toronto F.C. The spot, which showed Britons doing a spit-take upon hearing the news that Defoe was defecting to Canada, proved immensely successful for T.F.C.
“That was our way in,” says Da Silva of the campaign, which had caught the eye of the marketing team led by Shannon Hosford, who would become MLSE’s chief marketing officer. The Raptors were in the midst of a renaissance of their own, one that would see them return to the post-season that spring after six years in the wilderness.
The season ended in disappointing fashion, however, with a seven-game loss to the Brooklyn Nets in a first-round series that produced then GM Masai Ujuri’s infamous on-stage utterance “Fuck Brooklyn”—a brash and wholly un-Canadian statement that carried some heretofore absent swagger.
MLSE originally enlisted Sid Lee to create a new Raptors logo, one that would replace the dinosaur that had been part of the team’s visual identify since its inaugural season in 1995.
The cartoon Raptor was a throwback to quainter times in the team’s history, when losses were plentiful and often the only reason fans had to cheer was when it cracked 100 points—which meant a free slice at Pizza Pizza.
But those dark days were mostly behind the Raptors by 2014, and the franchise had aspirations of challenging for an NBA championship, one of the most elusive in professional sports. Just five franchises (the Bulls, Celtics, Lakers, Spurs and Warriors) account for nearly 70% of all NBA championships.
A cute dinosaur logo seemed incongruous with a newly ascendent team, particularly one whose GM seemed to have few reservations about putting opposing franchises on blast. “They were at a point where [the dinosaur] was no longer speaking to the tonality of the team,” says Da Silva.
The team’s desire with the rebrand, he says, was to become the “coolest” team in the NBA. It was a daunting task for a franchise that had spent much of its existence on the league’s fringes
And while the Raptors had put their past behind them on the court, geography was the one intractable force that would forever define the league’s sole Canadian franchise after the 2001 relocation of the Vancouver Grizzlies to Memphis.
It was that perpetual outside-looking-in status that became the rallying point for the creative team. “[The approach was] how do we embrace that and create a declaration around this territory, and do it in a way that was different to anything else in the NBA?” says Da Silva.
“We wanted to make sure we were representing the team in a way that was strategic, but also had a really strong point of view about the identity of the city,” he adds. “Inadvertently, it became the identity of the country. It became kind of like the new flag of Canada.”
It was a bold approach, particularly coming from a country that often looks to the U.S. for validation. “I feel like the only way to take a strong position is to declare one,” says Da Silva. “[We thought] what can we say about us that’s true? Well, we’re the only team in the NBA outside of the United States. We also wanted to represent Toronto in a way that was a little bit different than the cliche symbols you associate with Canada in general.”
That meant no pristine lakes or snow-peaked mountains. And no beavers. Instead, the visuals for the accompanying “We the North” TV spot featured Toronto’s concrete playgrounds and graffiti-covered back alleys, images more in keeping with the sport’s urban appeal. “A lot of Americans probably don’t imagine Canada that way,” says Da Silva. “There’s probably a general idea of the way Canada looks, and it’s rivers and streams and beavers.”
At some point during the process, there were what Da Silva describes as “real conversations” with MLSE about maybe even changing the team’s nickname. Leiweke himself had suggested that a name change was possible. “We’re definitely going to take a look at it,” he had said during a press conference introducing Ujiri as GM. “It doesn’t mean we’re committed to it. It means it’s a good conversation.”
The idea of resurrecting the nickname of Toronto’s first professional basketball team, the Huskies, was raised. But while the idea seemed to make sense on its surface, Sid Lee’s creative team soon realized that the sports world is filled with canine-adjacent nicknames that would ultimately undermine future branding efforts. “To have a dog or a wolf [as a logo] is just impossible,” says Da Silva.
The resulting ripped ball logo, one of the few in pro sports to utilize negative space, was a deliberate attempt by Sid Lee to upend standard sports orthodoxy—which tends to dictate that a team’s logo be a visual representation of its nickname (a stylized version of a bull’s head for the Chicago Bulls, for example).
The Sid Lee team instead chose to focus on the characteristics of the team and its namesake, emphasizing not only intangible Raptor-like qualities, such as ferociousness, but what Koukodimos describes as “unapologetic confidence.”
“Not everybody liked it right away; it was actually pretty contentious,” recalls Da Silva of the logo’s early reception. “People [tend to be] tied to the icons of their childhood. The ball [logo] is something we’re extremely proud of. The way it sits among all of the other NBA logos is very disruptive; even though it’s the most simple, it has the most disruptive qualities.”
There were also a countless number of aborted slogans along the way to “We the North,” yet there was something about the phrase—one of many ideas that lined the walls of the agency’s Raptors war room—that led the team at Sid Lee to decide that it was a winner. It worked for two main reasons, says Da Silva: It felt like a declaration (a kind of “we the people” for basketball fans), and it also sounded wrong in just the right way.
“We never entertained ‘We are the North,’ but we were asked multiple times by people who were involved if that’s what it should be,” says Koukodimos. There were even discussions about whether there should be a comma after the word “We.”
“People start thinking about it as a tagline, but it was not what we were trying to create,” says Koukodimos. “In fact, we thought of it as what would people say or cheer, not what a company would say with a line under its logo.”
The instantly identifiable font for “We the North” was discovered online by a Sid Lee designer. Named “Chinese Rocks,” it was chosen because it was reminiscent of the hand-written signs that dot NBA arenas, further adding a layer of authenticity.
Meanwhile, the script for the 60-second anthem spot was rewritten countless times as the creative team, which had swelled to more than 20 people at some point, worked to craft just the right language.
“There were some really terrible versions of it early on,” says Da Silva. “Tonally it was similar, but there was just something about the final version that had this gravitas about it. It felt that everything in this is true, it doesn’t feel like an ad in the traditional sense.”
Instead, it identified a perceived weakness (being outsiders) and took people on a journey that began with a question ‘What’s wrong with us?’ before flipping the script to reveal that’s what actually makes us unique.
“It wasn’t a manifesto written to say ‘Here’s why we’re great.’ You kind of didn’t see it coming,” says Koukodimos of the payoff. “In every way [the term] ‘outsiders’ is kind of a negative thing, but we identified it as a positive. The way it was written brought you along on that journey: It came out confident and strong and ended with a declaration of ‘This is who we are and we’re proud of it,’ which is very un-Canadian.”
MLSE immediately saw the potential for “We the North” when Sid Lee presented a rough cut featuring a different voiceover and raw footage. “It wasn’t like ‘Hmm, I think this will engage our target market.’ or ‘Can we show the product for 10 more seconds,” says Koukodimos. “It was a visceral reaction.”
After it was released, it quickly became apparent that “We the North” had struck a note with fans. Koukodimos remembers being in a McDonald’s in Toronto’s east end at 1 a.m. shortly after the spot’s debut, and seeing someone who had hand-stitched “We the North” into a regular ball cap.
What started as a simple branding effort has transcended its beginnings to become a mantra that reflects a nation’s aspirations and insecurities, that revels in being singular even as it means being “outside” the main.
Koukodimos, though, downplays its impact. “It feels cool, but I just want the Raptors to win,” he says.
A possible journey towards “We the champs” begins Thursday night at 9 p.m. EST.