Als new brand pivot aims to reconnect with storied history
When Sebastien Boulanger began to study the Montreal Alouettes, he saw a club with a rich history that was in transition.
Internally, the co-founder and creative director of GRDN Design Studio saw turnover in the present-day club, from the team’s downtown offices to the roster and coaching staff.
“It’s really tough to know what (the staff’s) attachment is to, so Roots and Wings is born from that,” Boulanger said in late May, working in the stands of Molson Percival Stadium at McGill. Throughout the day, key pieces of the team’s past and present had rolled through the stadium as part of a photo shoot.
“The idea is to try to reconnect with our story. A lot of our players don’t know about it, employees didn’t know about it. And if employees and players don’t know about it, fans won’t know a lot about that,” Boulanger said.
“That’s where it’s all started. That thing, to reconnect with players first, and employees and fans and community after that.”
The Alouettes’ Roots and Wings campaign will take their 72-year history and weave it through their 2018 campaign. Paying tribute to the franchise’s evolution, the team will feature a different logo from its past on their helmets through each month of the season. The saying “Earn your wings” that has popped up on t-shirts in the Alouettes’ training camp will play into the first logo on the helmet, which came from what the club used from 1946 to 1969.
The campaign will be much more than logos on helmets. As Boulanger and those around him studied the team, he wanted to emphasize what he saw in his city and how the Als and Montreal are very similar.
“We have to embrace what Montreal’s DNA is,” Boulanger said.
“For me…Montreal is recognized to have diversity. It’s creative, cultural. There’s a lot of food and music and culture. So it has to be that. Be diverse and be different. That’s why we’re going to bring new helmets, new elements. Maybe it’s different from what the league is doing. I think that DNA has to be the same DNA as Montreal’s.”
That will try to encompass a lot. There will be food trucks, possibly organized cheers in the stands at Als games this year. There’s also a celebration of key figures within the Als’ organization, both on and off of the field.
Boulanger and GRDN worked closely with the Alouettes and their partner, Vice Media on Roots and Wings. To move forward, said Vice’s head of creative, Paul Labonte, they all first looked back.
“I did a really deep dive into kind of the history of football. Right away I wanted to go into the culture of football and where lifestyle intersects,” Labonte said.
“When we think about football today and we talk about the CFL…there’s a storied tradition and history but how do you talk about football, outside of people who played football and fell in love with the game?”
They started with some of the pillars of the Alouettes’ organization. They didn’t go with the historically recognizable player name like Anthony Calvillo, Mike Pringle or Junior Ah-You. They first looked within the organization and went to the team’s logistics coordinator, Ronnie James.
James has been with the Alouettes since they returned to Montreal in 1996. He goes into his 20th season as the team’s equipment manager. Over the years, where hundreds of players have inundated him with requests that range from simple to lavish, James has earned a name: Dr. No.
“It was just a typical equipment thing, but I think some of my players made it stick with me and it’s been around for obviously 20 years,” said James, clad in a red sweater with white, fuzzy lettering that said Dr. No.
“Typically I get into little scuffles with my players. Always, Davis Sanchez comes up. Me and him had a good run in and people picked up on it and ran with Dr. No.
“Davis wanted a clean pair of white socks every game. We washed them and I thought it was sufficient enough for him to wear them the next game and he was not having that. So we got into (an argument). We basically didn’t talk to each other for almost a year. We laugh about it now. I look back on it and I think maybe it was kind of petty on my part, but this is my ground and I have to stand on it.”
What may not be immediately evident when you see James is the commitment his role requires.
“It is my life,” he said. “My wife knows when May comes around, it’s ‘See you in November, see you in December.’”
The James family is one that consumes football. His wife Susan’s brothers both played and were equipment managers with the Als before the team folded in 1987. James and Susan’s son, R.J. is now the equipment manager for the Ottawa REDBLACKS.
The gatekeeper to the Alouettes’ locker room over the last two decades, James has been immersed daily in the culture of the organization. When he thinks about the organization’s DNA, he sees community involvement.
“We’re everywhere,” he said. “And to see how much we do besides the football field, I think that’s where the Alouettes are very strong. I don’t know if many other teams do what we do. I’m most proud of that part of the club, how much we’re in the community.”
Annie Larouche sees something similar. The team’s director of cheerleading and director general of the Alouettes Foundation, she came to the team as a cheerleader in 1996, juggling a job at the Montreal courthouse in criminal court. Twenty-two years later, she calls the cheer team her second family. She’s a little surprised at how it all worked out, but has enjoyed an incredible journey.
She lists off the monumental moments on the field: Three Grey Cup wins; watching Mike Pringle setting a CFL record for career rushing yards and watching Calvillo set the pro football passing yards record.
“Being close to the community is the DNA of the Alouettes. Just being accessible, so close to our fans, to the community I think that’s what defines us,” she said.
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If Boulanger wanted a player that links the team’s past with the present, there is no better alumni than Peter Dalla Riva. A 14-year Alouette (1968 to 1981), the tight end is one of the team’s greatest players, winning three Grey Cups with the team. He’s still heavily involved as an alumni, providing a bridge from a glory days era of the team’s history.
“I think that’s what it’s all about. Your history,” Dalla Riva said. “I know when I came here it made it easier for the guys here before me. It made it easier for me, and their time when they were playing. You’re part of the fraternity, you’re part of the alumni, you’re part of the team, you always will be. You should be proud of that.”
As Labonte went through the day, interacting with the organizational figures and players in the photo shoot, he continually found connections with them. With James he found out they were from the same neighbourhood. It turned out they had a mutual friend that was James’ best man at his wedding. When he met with Dalla Riva, he told his mother about it and she remembered everything about him (“She said, ‘No. 74, tight end, lines up on the left.’”). When John Bowman made his way onto the field for his shoot, Labonte immediately wanted to reenact Bowman’s 100th career sack on the McGill field.
Through Roots and Wings, he wants to try to build similar connections for a new generation of fans this season and maybe strengthen connections that longer-tenured fans might have lost touch with.
“To me, it’s about figuring out the parallels between the team and the city and how those two things interact generationally,” he said.
Luc Brodeur-Jourdain grew up in St. Hyacinthe, Que., an hour from Montreal. He won three Vanier Cups at Laval before joining the Als in 2009. Montreal is a part of him, he says, and it’s part of being an Alouette.
“The DNA itself, it’s always been a winning culture, from top to bottom,” Brodeur-Jourdain said.
“It’s always been to be involved, to be a part of, to be accessible, to be easygoing with the crowd and people. To be people-persons.
“I’ve met so many fans, so many people during the course of my career and I don’t see them as fans anymore. I go out and I see someone and I’ll stop, I’ll eat, I’ll have a drink with that person. I think the DNA of the Montreal Alouettes is being Montreal. Being part of Montreal. It’s just being our province. We’ve got people from north shore, south shore, from everywhere coming to the games. I think it’s just being reflective of what our society is.”
Bowman and Tyrell Sutton, both American-born players that now live in Montreal year-round, spent their afternoon with the photo crew. They both saw what Brodeur-Jourdain saw and fell in love with the city and the team.
“The culture, the music, the food, the construction, the people, the heritage, everything about it. I could keep going on and on,” Sutton said. “It’s a beautiful melting pot. It’s not like any other place in North America.”
“When I got to Montreal, I had a sweater, a hoodie, a big triple goose coat on and it was June,” Bowman laughed. “So I knew not a thing about Montreal or Canada.
“As I started exploring the city and it was like, festivals everywhere, food everywhere, different cultures. That was the biggest thing for me. Growing up (in North Carolina), the only thing we thought about Canada was it was igloos, it was cold all year round. To come up here and see people from Jamaica, people from India, Africa, it just blew my mind. It was a huge culture shock in a good way.”
Boulanger, Labonte and the Alouettes organization want to try to bring all of those feelings together for fans this season. The way that festivals and cultural celebrations can bring a city together, football can as well.
“What I think is cool is it’s not like English-French; football is the language,” Labonte said.
“In and around football in Quebec, none of that (divisive) stuff comes into play. The love of the game (transcends) language. The culture of football in the city, the proof is in the pudding. You see all the players coming in (to the CFL) and there’s way more players from here than before.”
For all of the on-field success she’s seen up close over the last two decades, Larouche said that one of her favourite moments is visiting with fans in three different sections on the sidelines that she’s gotten to know over the years.
“Every person has an emotional tie to game day here,” Labonte said. “It’s cool.”
“This has always been a place where people worked hard and really played hard. It’s a party city. Jazz was celebrated here. The Gay Village, house music, disco, you look at every era, it’s always been a place that…it’s funny. For all the divisive French-English stuff, at the end of the day it’s one of the most inclusive, understanding, diverse places.”
Dalla Riva, still the same scrapping six-foot-three that he was when he played, thinks back to the vibe in Montreal in the 1970s and what the city’s sports teams played in it. He’d love to see it come back. Times have changed, but the DNA is still there.
“I think it’s a combination of the city and the culture and the winning traditions that we had in the past,” he said.
“I just think a good organization starts at the top and goes all the way down to the ball boy and they stick together. Especially in football. You’ve got to stay together, no matter what.”