We The North according to neuroscience

The success of We The North is a story of a city's collective identify captured in three simple - but infinitely rich - words.

The Toronto Raptors made history with their first NBA Eastern Conference Finals appearance, and the city has paused to reflect on the movement that brought the city — and the country — together.

We The North was a rallying cry for the country to stand behind Canada’s only NBA team, and it transformed a fledgling franchise and brand into a pro sports powerhouse and cultural phenomenon. It spawned a merchandising juggernaut, a ubiquitous hashtag, and has even resulted in pathetic copycat attempts, like the Pacers “We The Gold”.

MLSE’s Shannon Hosford and her agency Sid Lee did an outstanding job in galvanizing a nation behind the team. But what was the ‘X factor’? What created such a widely adopted and empowering movement?

Toronto-born Drake is the Toronto Raptors Global Ambassador (image cred: The Toronto Star)

Toronto-born Drake is the Toronto Raptors Global Ambassador (image cred: The Toronto Star)

Was it Drake?

His superstardom has given rise to at least one person suggesting that Toronto’s history — and by extension that of its basketball team for whom he’s Global Ambassador — can be divided into pre and post Drizzy. Associating with one of the world’s biggest stars is bound to raise the profile of a brand. And it was a stroke of genius to name him as Global Ambassador, which instantly raised the star factor of the Air Canada Centre with him sitting courtside in a similar way to celebrities in New York and Los Angeles. There’s a sexiness and cache to Raptors games that didn’t exist before.

But not everyone cares about Drake, and not everyone cares about celebrity. There are passionate fans of Oklahoma City, but how many homegrown celebrities are sitting courtside? Not a lot.

If not Drake, then what about the product on the court?

It goes without saying that we wouldn’t be having this discussion were the Raptors not in the playoffs, much less the Conference finals: success breeds an industry that dissects its drivers. The characters and leadership both on the court and in the team’s management brass are an irresistible combination of swagger, hustle, and talent.

But there are talented and successful teams without much of a brand beyond their star players — past and present; look at Jordan’s Bulls, Bird’s Celtics, and the Raptors’ Conference Finals opponents, LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers. The players that lead them define those teams.

That’s not really true of the Raptors. Our backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are All Stars, of course, but because of the equity between them and because of a very strong supporting cast of characters that on a given day could be leaders themselves, there isn’t really a single face of the team. There are several.

So if not the stars — both on and off the court — then what?

There’s a compelling answer that can be found in the brain. With the help of neuroscience and an understanding of cultural anthropology and linguistics, Brainsights revealed an incredible phenomenon: We The North is about identity, and specifically, it’s about the identity of non-Caucasian Millennials in Toronto.

“We consistently found that images, language and stories conveying collective struggles and achievement performed much better for non-Caucasians than for Caucasians.”

According to Shannon Hosford, the whole movement started with the Sid Lee-produced 60-second spot, which dropped in April 2014. It was a rallying cry, which sought to embrace the outsider status of the city and the country, with the Raptors as the only Canadian team in the NBA. We The North labeled us Torontonians/Canadians as “The North”.

This much is obvious. What’s not obvious, however, is just how much more strongly this language — this identity — resonated with non-Caucasian Millennials than with anyone else.

Brainsights analyzed the moment-by-moment non-conscious response to the spot, looking at the results overall versus other ads, drilling down to look at just Millennials (born between 1980–1995) and then breaking that out by Caucasian versus non-Caucasian (for a rough 50/50 split, as per the city’s population). We analyzed hundreds of millions of brain data points from more than a thousand people across hundreds of hours of content, looking at where they paid attention, what they connected with emotionally, and what they filed away to memory. What we found shocked us.

As the charts here clearly show, there were considerable differences in the level of non-conscious engagement: it was as if non-Caucasian Millennials saw a completely different spot.

From Brainsights’ database: A second-by-second breakdown of how Millennials responded at the non-conscious level to We The North, on Attention, Emotional Connection and Encoding to Memory. (Mean line is average non-conscious engagement level for all Millennials for the ad.)

What was going on?

As we dug into the data for this segment, we noticed an affinity to the collectivist language and the communal spirit it conjured. For those who identify as Black, Filipino, Chinese, or South Asian, moments like “In many ways we’re in a league of our own” spoke deeply to them.

We looked beyond the We The North spot for evidence of this phenomenon elsewhere in our content and neural database. We consistently found that images, language and stories conveying collective struggles and achievement performed much better for non-Caucasians than for Caucasians. For example, in hockey content, Caucasians are much more likely to respond to individual heroics, while non-Caucasians have deeper engagement with team-based celebrations and moments.

This suggested to us a powerful role of culture in the impact of We The North on non-Caucasians versus Caucasians, specifically along the collectivist-individualist spectrum. Non-Caucasians tend to come from cultures that are more collectivist in nature, whereas Caucasians tend to come from more individualist cultures. Terms denoting group identity (‘we’, ‘our’, etc) align with collectivist culture ideas of identity. Terms denoting individualist identity (‘I’, ‘my’, etc, which were absent from the spot) align with individualist culture ideas of identity. We The North was clearly engaging the former at a deeper level.

But the collectivist-individualist culture theory was only part of what was happening.

‘We’, ‘our’, and ‘us’ were combined with an outsider mentality that was embraced instead of hidden, celebrated instead of scorned. Again, this played particularly well with non-Caucasian Millennials. Language like “From our perspective, we’re on the outside looking within” spoke to a sense of self-belief and resilience familiar to outsiders.

For a city like Toronto, with more than half its population foreign-born, outsider status comes naturally. But it’s also embraced and celebrated — there’s a huge civic pride in the multiculturalism of our city. A collective cheer goes up each time the city’s status as most multicultural city in the world is reaffirmed.

About half the city’s population is a visible minority, hailing from cultures and upbringings where collectivist, group-based identities are the norm.

What We The North provided was a rallying point, a focus, a symbol, a tribe — and more.

“It was a pitch perfect call to arms for a city that has long been an outsider.”

Perhaps most surprising for us at Brainsights is that, for non-Caucasian Millennials, the association of We The North with the Raptors basketball team appears to be incidental.

Indeed, this association seems far more relevant to Caucasians. “Let’s Go Raptors” cheering, and the brand’s reveal at the end of the spot (from seconds 55–60) show a significant difference between the ethnic groups, with Caucasian Millennials encoding the moments to Memory at a much greater level.

More than three words. (image cred: Sid Lee/MLSE)

More than three words. (image cred: Sid Lee/MLSE)

What does this all mean?

We The North was more than the stars on and off the court. It was more than the celebrity power of Drake, the All Star backcourt, ‘Fuck Brooklyn’ or Jurassic Park.

It was a pitch perfect call to arms for a city that has long been an outsider — and that has long lacked a coherent identity to anyone looking at it from afar — to embrace these traits as points of pride. Toronto has long been underestimated, both on and off the court, and it’s long struggled with its identity — provincial town, industrial town, New York’s little brother, Hollywood North, Hogtown.

As a diverse and changing city, it needed a set of symbols that reflected its identity of the past — resilience, industry — with its idea of itself now and into the future — swaggering, sensitive, open and multicultural. In the Raptors and Drake it has found two of those symbols.

But it also needed a language — itself a set of symbols — to communicate this identity to itself and to others. The6 is part of this language, but We The North was and remains the term that the city rallied around, as it gave voice to Toronto’s identity, past and present, and found in the Raptors champions of that voice.

It’s doubtful Hosford and the talented team at Sid Lee knew just how great the impact of these three words would be. But it’s highly likely that together they’ve produced a movement that goes beyond the basketball court and instills in Torontonians a sense of civic pride they can now communicate to the rest of the world.