Meet the marketer behind the Raptors’ #WeTheNorth campaign

Shannon Hosford oversaw one of the most successful rebranding efforts Canadian sports has ever seen. Here’s how

MLSE Vice President of Marketing & Communications Shannon Hosford

MLSE Vice President of Marketing & Communications Shannon Hosford (Portrait by Jon Bielaski/Light Imaging)

Shannon Hosford attributes much of her success to timing. Over her 16-year career at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment she’s risen through the ranks, working on dozens of marketing campaigns for different franchises. Now, as MLSE’s Vice President of Marketing & Communications, she oversees a portfolio that includes the Toronto Raptors, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Toronto FC—and a staff of 150 that make sure each brand is maintained accordingly. (MLSE is part-owned by Rogers Communications, which owns Canadian Business.) Hosford has overseen what is perhaps the largest rebranding effort in Canadian sports history. With one 60-second ad, the #WeTheNorth campaign took the first step in bringing the Raptors to international prominence, and a disenfranchised fan base back to the bleachers. Hosford now faces the challenge of maintaining the brand—which she does from an office just five minutes away from the court.

We’ve seen a change in attitude from people who previously didn’t associate themselves with the Toronto Raptors—now they’re “Canada’s team.” How has that come about?

Well, everything happened at once, but it happened by design. We had a five-year plan as we headed into our 20-year anniversary. Our goal was to put the Toronto Raptors on the map nationally, and in the NBA. We wanted to attract the largest NBA event, the All Star Game, and we wanted to get some sort of global ambassador involved. Timing played a huge part for us; we had agencies come and pitch us in December of 2013. We saw the We The North pitch, and it was instant. What they pitched to us wasn’t intended for a consumer—it was a 60 second [ad], which is really unheard of, we usually do 30 second [ads], but we wanted it exactly as it was. We were in the playoffs for the first time, so we dropped the ad immediately, before the rebrand had even been introduced.

Why do you think Canadians have embraced the brand the way they have?

The thing that I love about We The North is that it’s authentic, it’s about who we are as Canadians. We spun all the negative things about where we come from into a positive; it might be cold but we are the north and we’re proud of it. I think a lot of people gravitated towards the spin because it resonated with them.

You’ve done a lot of audience engagement when it comes to the Raptors—earlier this year you had fans come and dance in the Hotline Bling Booth, which you shared on Vine. How much do attribute audience participation to the success of the brand?

I think it’s huge, and really again it comes down to timing. The Hotline Bling Booth probably wouldn’t work if we did it tomorrow, because it’s not topical. Drake’s team came in and set up the booth three days before the game, and we had millions of impressions worldwide because of it. We have the flexibility with this brand to have fun, so we’ve found success in being true to what the brand stands for while having fun with it at the same time.

Having celebrities associated with brands isn’t necessarily a new concept, but it’s rare to see a spokesperson engage with one the way Drake does, or even the players themselves. How do you leverage that starpower to your advantage?

Well, in the beginning we had a back-and-forth about how it would work and what it would look like. I think people think that we pay Drake, and we do not. He is strictly here on his own good will. We let him breathe and do his own thing; we discuss certain things—the black and gold uniforms had his input—but it’s not about making someone do something for your brand. When things fit, it’s just about embracing it. So I think that’s where we’ve been successful; we don’t ask him to come out and do appearances, we just respect the relationship we have and try to leverage it as best as possible.

As a brand, We The North has become so big that it’s getting co-opted—we’re seeing teams saying “We The South.” How do you get ahead of that kind of thing?

It doesn’t bother us at all, I think it’s the best form of flattery. I mean, could they have come up with something better? We see it everywhere—the Bell Lightbox has “See the North” and people are always creating their own versions of it. We’re not going to be out policing that—the more people who want to use it, that’s fine with us.

There’s a big focus on the Raptors right now with the playoffs, but of course you manage a very diverse portfolio which includes the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto FC. How do you go about creating individual brands that speak to each franchise?

They’re all very different audiences, and we have people that run each of those brands, and they run them individually. The biggest mistake we could make would be to try and cookie-cutter something from one brand to the other. We would never want to have a situation where we weren’t being authentic to a team or a brand, because they are all so different.

Do you ever have situations when you release something the fans just don’t respond well to?

Of course. We had YYZ on the shirts for the Wednesday playoff game, and someone [on social media] said “What, we’re really proud of Pearson now?” I mean, we’re in a business where we’re always in the spotlight. When people respond negatively, we just keep focused on what we’re trying to accomplish. We let things happen organically. Someone asked me today when we named Jurassic Park. We’ve never named Jurassic Park—the fans did that. It’s actually “Ford Fan Zone at Maple Leaf Square.” Instead of challenging what fans are saying, we embrace it.

When it comes to building a brand, you’ve mentioned authenticity and consistency. Is there a third thing you think is necessary?

Timing and having a plan. You need to have a plan; we worked on the new Maple Leafs logo for a long, long time. Something we try to do here is manage our own story. For a long time we had other people talking about our brand, and we weren’t managing the narrative that we wanted to get out there. Now in our campaigns, instead of just putting out a logo, we really direct how we want the story to be told. And that resonates with people.