The Outlaws

For brands that aren’t sponsors, getting in the Games is its own game

The OutlawsWhen Wayne Gretzky lit the Olympic cauldron at the 2010 Games’ opening ceremonies, he was predictably decked out in Olympic-sanctioned gear from the Hudson’s Bay Company. But three days later, for his much-photographed arrival at NBC’sToday show in the International Broadcasting Centre, an Olympic venue, he wore a jacket made by Roots, the Canadian retailer that lost its gig producing Olympic gear in 2005 to the Bay. It was, in a quieter way, another game-on moment: the official kickoff of the stealth branding contest that has itself become an Olympian sport.

Only official sponsors and suppliers are allowed in Olympic zones. So getting non-official brands a turn in the glare of the Games without being shut down by the organizers requires cat-burglar agility. It’s a gamble worth taking—particularly when your primary rival is an official sponsor. MasterCard, for instance, is trying to counter Visa’s grip on the Games by sending out two catering trucks every day to serve 800 or so cups of coffee and cocoa at busy Vancouver intersections. The feel-good gesture plasters its logo—stamped on cups and napkins—all over the city. Ocean Spray International is conducting a small-scale challenge to competitor Coca-Cola by handing out some 2,300 bottles of cranberry cocktail and 19,000 packages of Craisins every day at a Canada Line station in Richmond, where throngs of commuters head into the city. And the CBC, shut out of the broadcast consortium, is getting its flashes of airtime on CTV, the domestic broadcast supplier, by printing its patriotic red-and-white logo on the backs of paper Canadian flags that it’s handing out en route to the hockey arena.

Not being at the Games wasn’t an option, says Ryan Timms, account director at MacLaren McCann, MasterCard’s Toronto ad agency. “It’s hard not to have a presence at the largest, localized event in Canadian history,” he observes. But getting in without stepping on Visa’s toes, or those of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), is a delicate dance, given the legal reach accorded the IOC to protect its powerful franchise—which in turn hinges on it providing a singular platform for the world’s most valuable brands. The group is on high alert for ambush campaigns, counterfeit merchandise and misleading marketing association by companies that haven’t contributed to its coffers. Even accidental exposure is unwelcome. Instructing the audience to don white ponchos at the opening ceremony wasn’t only an aesthetic decision, insiders suggest: it also prevented non-IOC sanctioned logos from marring the production.

The money at stake, after all, is major. Corporate sponsorship accounts for 40 per cent of the IOC’s total revenues (broadcasting rights account for 50 per cent, ticket sales eight per cent and licensing fees two per cent). In the IOC’s last complete marketing cycle—2005 to 2008—sponsorship fees alone added up to $866 million.

In Canada, the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee (VANOC) has proven just as zealous in policing perceived threats to the brand. All is spelled out in an 11-page list of trademarked images, symbols, and phrases that are off limits to other companies. They include images of Olympic rings and the torch as well as the terms “Olympics,” “Olympian,” “2010 Games,” and “Vancouver 2010.” But VANOC also holds the rights to more generic phrases (“Countdown to 2010,” “Games City”) and even common words such as “winter” “gold,” “silver,” “games,” “Vancouver” and “2010.” The only thing it didn’t manage to lock down was the colour red.

This was all abetted in 2007 by federal legislation that gives VANOC trademark control over all imagery and language associated with the 2010 Games from Jan. 1, 2005 to Dec. 31, 2012—and the rights of a government agency to enforce it. The organization has exercised its clout ferociously, as witnessed in its doomed battle with family-owned restaurant Olympia Pizza. VANOC spanked Lululemon last December when the yoga-gear empire lauched a line of “cheer gear” that included “special edition” hoodies in Canadian, U.S., German and Swedish colours. “We expected better sportsmanship from a local Canadian company,” the group stated in a press release that accused the Vancouver-based company of producing clothing “that attempts to profit from the Games but doesn’t support the Games or the success of the Canadian Olympic team.”

Lululemon sees it otherwise. The company tried for sponsorship status in 2005, says Eric Petersen, its director of community relations. “And we’ve been supporting athletes and the Games for years.” Other sources say VANOC called founder and chairman Chip Wilson and told him to back off or Lululemon would never be a sponsor. Wilson’s response was typically mellow: the company is throwing free yoga classes in town for anyone “stressed out” by the Games.

Roots, too, has been unapologetic. It’s running big ads for its “International Collection” of T-shirts and leather goods festooned with various foreign flags. It has also been trumpeting the “made in Canada” status of its new hockey jersey, its “Canada Hoody” and its “Vintage Canada Awards” jacket. Ninety-five per cent of its clothing and all of its leather goods are manufactured domestically, says Roots co-founder Michael Budman, while only 25 per cent of the Bay’s Olympic gear sold to the public is made here. In any case, “The Bay is not our competitor,” he says.

The Outlaws

Budman and his partner, Don Green, are more than making up for being shut out of the Games by tapping their vast celebrity network. Gretzky is a long-time pal. So is the writer Douglas Coupland, who wore a Roots jacket when photographed by the New York Times magazine last month. The company’s website is packed with photos of stars at its ongoing Olympic party. And cameras document the stylish scene at Roots’ hospitality suite in a downtown hotel; it draws celebrities, among them the Gretzky family, the CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi, Paul Wong, Coupland, and Elvis Costello. Budman calls the sleek space with killer views “a ski chalet in the sky.” National Post gossip columnist Shinan Govani has another desciptor: “the biggest swag suite at the Games.”

Meanwhile, Budman, now outside the official loop, is torquing his outsider status to his advantage: Roots, he argues, offers a way to cheer the team without buying into the Olympic machine. “I have nothing to say about VANOC,” he says, “except to say they should enjoy their trademark. We want nothing to do with it.” Roots isn’t alone. “Not getting official sponsorship status is the best thing that could have happened,” says Lululemon’s Petersen. VANOC’s restrictions would have “tied our hands.” Now the company has the freedom to pull off spur-of-the-moment projects—like its $48 T-shirt with the text “02.14.10” and a gold maple leaf screened on the front to commemorate Alexandre Bilodeau’s historic gold medal. Lululemon also threw an impromptu party in Whistler last week attended by competing athletes who are staying at its compound there. VANOC has strict rules about athlete appearances, and how they’re promoted by sponsors, Petersen explains. “If we had to ask for permission, it wouldn’t have happened.” It’s also unlikely that its idea to put gold zippers on its Canadian hoodies and silver ones on those for the U.S. audience would have withstood the scrutiny by committee.

Circumventing VANOC rules requires creativity, which has fuelled some clever ideas, like “Fancouver 2010,” the name of the Yahoo-sponsored lounge in Yaletown. And Lululemon’s hoodie labels, gently mocking the Olympic word police by referring to a “cool sporting event that takes place in British Columbia between 2009 & 2011,” resonated with the public. The hoodie became one of its big sellers—in part because it tapped into what Patricia Salmond, owner of Urban Empire, calls an appetite for goods that question the Olympic machine. Salmond’s shop has done brisk business selling VANOC-baiting buttons that read “OWE-lympics” and “Vancouver 2010 another downhill event.” Even members of the police force and the RCMP have bought them as gag gifts or in tacit agreement with the message, says Salmond.

Olympic outsiders seem to have united in a spirit of camaraderie. The group now includes Right to Play, the international children’s charity founded by former speed skating gold-medallist Johann Olav Koss. After a decade of involvement with the Olympic program, the humanitarian group (whose “althlete ambassadors” include Olympians Jennifer Heil, Brad Gushue and Gretzky) has been banned by the IOC from all Olympic venues in 2010 and 2012. Koss, a former IOC member, says the IOC gave no reason. But some speculate it might have something to do with a corporate brand showdown: many of Right to Play’s sponsors, including Mitsubishi and MasterCard, compete directly with IOC sponsors. Budman, for one, sits on the Right to Play board, and Roots produces Right to Play-branded gear, which has pride of place next to Roots Canada hoodies in its stores.

If official sponsors are ticked off, they’re not saying. “It’s the organizing committee’s job to protect the value of the sponsor,” said a spokesman for the Hudson’s Bay Company, which paid $100 million to produce Olympic apparel, plus additional investments in athlete sponsorship programs. When asked about MasterCard’s cocoa vans, Visa spokesman Andrew Woodward says he’s amused by the “mobile coffee machines” but doubts they’ll make a dent, given Visa’s high profile: “If you look around Vancouver, it’s Visa central.” Visa is less sanguine about its competitor’s commercials on CTV during the Games, says Timms. MasterCard’s “significant” buy for the airtime resulted in Visa calling the network to question why it had given a prime-time spot to a competitor. But Visa had chosen not to shell out for exclusive rights.

But one of the Games’ most successful stealth branders is the Great One himself. It’s not only his high-visibility appearances in Roots gear. His Vineland, Ont., winery, Wayne Gretzky Estates, dominates the Olympic party circuit despite Jackson Triggs’s status as official wine supplier. Gretzky’s “99 Estate” is featured at Fairmont hotels. It’s also the official vintage at Molson Hockey House and the house wine at Roots’s hospitality suite. All we need now is Gretzky photographed in a Roots Right to Play T-shirt. Then the Olympic stealth branding circle will be complete. And as long as there aren’t four other circles anywhere near it, it’ll be win-win-win.