What is missing from Toronto Raptors’ brand strategy?

I am an avid fan of basketball and Toronto Raptors. Be that as it may, this article is not about the most recent lackadaisical season of the Raptors. If you want to discuss basketball, I would suggest you visit Raptors Republic, for the real basketball sages hang out there. This article, on the other hand, is written from a pure brand strategy point of view and it should be treated as such.

While I was not living in Canada back when Toronto earned the right to have an NBA franchise, I am nonetheless familiar with their genesis story. I am also aware of the perceptions of Canadians, Americans, and players about Toronto Raptors. Though not by merit but by chance, the Raptors became the de facto basketball team of Canada once Grizzlies moved to Memphis. From Halifax to Edmonton, Canadians perceive it that way, though it does not mean that they value or care. Same goes for the players too. Roughly 80% of NBA players are American. So for most of them playing in abroad, Toronto that is, might not be very attractive. They perceive it as living abroad. That further strengthens the Raptors’ positioning as Canada’s Team, making it a strategic fit. That said,  does the brand live up to its promise? What do Canadians like and want?

There is a concept called Intelligent Naivety. It shows that we understand the dynamics and possibilities of a situation better in the first month than we do three years in. In simpler terms, we are more perceptive when we are inexperienced. That is the greatest advantage of being a newcomer, for those who immigrate notice things that locals unconsciously ignore. So, let me share my conception of Canada, Toronto, and the Raptors.

Visibly, Canada is a vast and mainly cold country. Ibn Khaldun, the famous historian, once said, “Geography is destiny.” Indeed the extreme weather and the harsh nature of the land have shaped the Canadian culture. On a side note, to learn more about Canadian values and brands read Jeannette Hanna’s Ikonica. Canadians are amicable, social, and community-driven people. They are, however, also very tough. One research hits the nail on its head, when it says, “Canadians demonstrate outward inferiority and inward superiority.”

Arguably the dichotomy of playing well with others while appreciating being rough and tough is one of the main reasons why hockey is so popular. Hockey embodies pretty much everything Canadians value the most: Teamwork, physicality, mastery, thinking, strength, honour, fun, and beauty. Those adjectives are right on code for Canadians. Thus, if one claims to be Canada’s Team, that is what it should deliver. How resilient, though, are the Raptors?

Sadly, Toronto Raptors is one of the softest teams in the NBA. They were third in points allowed last season. That is not a surprise, for having Calderon, Turkoglu, and Bargnani as starters is committing suicide defensively. As a rule of thumb, European players do not have a reputation for being Bulldog defenders. However, the Euros of the Raptors take softness to a whole new level.

Same can be said for Chris Bosh, who was the former face of the franchise. While he is a talented basketball player, he is a mediocre defender. More importantly, his mental fortitude has been questionable. Bosh is a finesse type of power forward, who has a tendency to avoid banging bodies with bigger players.

Then there is Jay Triano, who is the head coach of the Raptors. I can attest to his down-to-earth, kind, and friendly character given that I met him in person. However, is he the type of coach that would hold players accountable at the defensive end?So far the answer has been “no.”
Being Canada’s Team would require adopting smash-mouth basketball. Back in the 90’s New York Knicks had the “no lay-up” rule. Also 80’s  saw the rise of the “Bad Boys” Pistons. Those two teams would be right on code, here in Canada. Do you want proof? Look at all the players, with whom Toronto Raptors fan base have fallen: Jerome Williams, Morris Peterson, Antonio Davis, Alvin Williams, Marcus Camby, Charles Oakley, Keon Clark, and Amir Johnson? The pattern is highly visible. What Canadians want is a team that fights, defends its ground, and stands up to a bully for the greater good. They equally ask for a coach that would make it happen. Think for a second: Where would the Raptors be had they been coached by Scott Skiles? Or Avery Johnson? Or Jeff Van Gundy? Successful or not, they would be a team that opponents are intimidated to play. That is exactly what Canadians want: Being worthy of respect.

Toronto Raptors might be one of the most valuable franchises in the league. They might also get above league average attendance. All those stats prove that employ a team of successful marketers. But marketing and branding are not the same thing. I believe the decision to go European is off code, hurting the franchise. While the Raptors could sell Calderon or Bargnani jerseys to Torontonians, they cannot sell the mentality of the team. That is why pivoting to the Young Gunz idea is a wise move. Finding young American prospects, who appreciate the City of Toronto could pave the way for changing the perception of players around the league.

From a brand strategy point of view, being Canada’s Team is a powerful promise. It is strategically fit, believable, and distinct. It is time for the Raptors to go out and deliver on it. What do you think? Fire up your comments.

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Randy says:

    Well done

  2. Soydanbay says:

    Thanks Randy.

  3. Trivial says:

    A great start to a good conversation, but there are so many more places you can take it. Some questions that need to be asked is how does the Raptors fall into a Toronto? Canada? sports/entertainment perspective? Has the interest changed since Vancouver left? Or are the Raptors contributing to the growth of basketball in Toronto and Canada?

    Some, other probably more important questions are expanding on the Raptor brand in the U.S./NBA. For instance, is the perception of the team more fact or fiction? Does the team need to make a better marketing effort? and if so how? Do the Raptors need to push for more exposure on national U.S. networks?

    Also, how popular is the team and players overseas? Considering its considered a international friendly team?

    Thanks, for the article and I hope you can maybe try to answer these questions in a future entry.

    1. Soydanbay says:

      Thanks Trivial for your detailed feedback and thought provoking questions. I think you are right on money with your questions. I would like to believe that Raptors is helping the growth of basketball in Canada. While I don’t have any facts to support my view, based on my personal observation, when successful, Toronto embraces the Raptors. Success is particularly important for a big city team.

      As per your second question, I think the same. Raptors should proactively shape the perceptions of US players. They should conduct interviews to see what players think about the city, country. Which road blocks exist? Because, you cannot win with international players only. You need quality American players. And if there are certain myths about this place, Raptors should know them and build its messaging against it.

      Thanks again for your feedback. I will try to write a follow-up post!

      Cheers,

      Gunter

  4. Soydanbay says:

    Relevant article from Grantland:
    http://grantland.com/the-triangle/optical-illusions-a-look-at-the-recent-past-and-near-future-of-the-raptors-brand-identity/

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