Olympics Spell Opportunity for Brands

For the Olympics, brands are putting their prestige and cash behind gold medal contenders, such as snowboarder Shaun White and skier Lindsey Vonn.

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Polo’s uniforms for the U.S. team.

Courtesy Photo

Under Armour made the bobsled uniforms and also sponsors skier Lindsey Vonn.

Under Armour made the bobsled uniforms and also sponsors skier Lindsey Vonn.

Courtesy Photo

Shaun White in his collection for Target.

Shaun White in his collection for Target.

Courtesy Photo

The power of personality is alive and well for Winter Olympics marketers.

This story first appeared in the February 10, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Brands are putting their prestige and cash behind top gold medal contenders, such as snowboarder Shaun White and skier Lindsey Vonn, even as some major television sponsors, including General Motors and Johnson & Johnson, opt out of the Games, which get under way Friday in Vancouver. NBC, which has the TV rights, has projected a $200 million loss — a combination of soft advertising and the $820 million rights fee it paid.

Decisions on how to spend marketing and ad dollars are influenced by a range of factors, including a brand’s image and goals as well as social media and other technology-driven alternatives that compete for consumers with shorter attention spans and fewer dollars.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys Inc., said of sponsoring a top athlete. “You want to be associated with a winner, and if [an athlete] specifically reinforces your brand’s values, that’s a good thing.” And most important, consumers “think better of you.”

Passikoff said some corporate sponsors are exploring different options for their marketing because many 18- to 34-year-olds, the sweet spot for advertisers, are not being “engaged” by conventional television commercials.

“[Companies] just don’t see a correlation to sales,” he said.

At the same time, marketing consultant Jack Trout, president of Trout and Partners, said social media sites are “still a work in progress,” and Facebook and Twitter “don’t lend themselves to storytelling.”

Citing Nike Inc.’s long association with Michael Jordan, Trout said: “You have to connect with your prospective [consumer]. They have to say that if an athlete they admire is using a particular product, ‘I want to be like them.’”

The Olympics are a venue for drama and national pride and entice athletic and other brands because it meshes with their DNA, Passikoff said.

That’s the case with Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., which Passikoff said is a good fit for the U.S. Olympic team because of its identification with Americana.

Polo designed the uniforms for U.S. athletes for the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as a collection of apparel and accessories for them to wear in the Olympic Village.

Outfitting the team presents challenges. David Lauren, senior vice president of advertising, marketing and corporate communications for Polo, said working with hundreds of athletes ranging from waiflike figure skaters to beefy skiers is “quite an undertaking.” It also represents something more.

“It’s in keeping with our company philosophy — that’s why we did it,” he said. “We’ve been proud to use the flag on our products for over 40 years.”


Polo started working with the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2008, when it outfitted the team for the opening and closing ceremonies at the Summer Games in Beijing. The opening drew one of the largest worldwide audiences in history.

“It was an historic event, and we were front and center,” Lauren said. This prompted the company to extends its association through 2012.

Olympic-themed merchandise such as down jackets, sweaters, shirts, fleece pants and caps is being sold at all Polo Ralph Lauren stores, on polo.com and in select retailers such as Macy’s. The company has been promoting its association with the Olympics in print advertising, as well as dedicating store windows to the merchandise and sending out direct mail pieces and e-mail blasts. Its Web site is running videos and interviews with the athletes, offering historical images of the Games and a link to purchase product.

Lauren said Olympic-related merchandise has been “incredibly popular with customers,” while stressing that selling jackets or sweaters is not Polo’s primary motivation.

Omega, which has been the official timekeeper of the Olympics since 1932, might be the most visible brand at the Winter Games.

“That’s what people are staring at each and every event,” Passikoff said.

The company has created the Vancouver 2010 watch, which retails for $3,800. Only 2,010 were produced.

“Although we make limited edition models around the Olympic Games which are always successful, our prime objective is to use the Games to position the brand as the leader in timekeeping technology and as a platform to present Omega the world stage,” Omega president Stephen Urquhart said.

That international platform is also key for companies that sponsor gold medal contenders such as White, Vonn and skier Bode Miller.

Snowboarder White, 23, nicknamed “The Flying Tomato” because of his shoulder-length, flame red hair, may be the best-known athlete in the Games. He won gold in the men’s half-pipe at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, and recently captured top honors at the X Games. He has built a multimillion-dollar action sports brand that includes the Shaun White 4 Target young men’s collection, along with the White Collection of outerwear by snowboard manufacturer Burton.

Such is the pull of White’s name that the energy drink Red Bull, one of his sponsors, built a sequestered half-pipe course in the Colorado mountains on which he practiced for Vancouver. White has his own video game and even codesigned sunglasses with Oakley. Forbes estimated he earned $9 million in 2008, mainly from endorsements.

Troy Michel, head of Target Corp.’s lifestyle marketing team, said the retailer has worked with White for eight years on the collection. Designed by White, his brother Jesse and a team from Target, the line of T-shirts, woven shirts, shorts and denim jeans for boys and young men is updated six times a year.

“He has a real passion for the clothing and he’s heavily involved,” Michel said. “For instance, our skinny jeans wouldn’t fit the way they do if he hadn’t changed them.”

Burton has been associated with White since he was just seven years old, when the company was developing a snowboard line for kids. Burton produces the White Collection of men’s and women’s outerwear, along with boots, boards, bags and gloves.

Vonn, considered the U.S.’ best-ever women’s alpine skier, is backed by Under Armour. The athletic brand is also the official outfitter of the U.S. ski and bobsled teams.

“Our vision is to make the athlete better,” said Steve Battista, senior vice president of brand for Under Armour Inc. “And to do that, you have to include athletes at the top of their game.” It doesn’t hurt that the Olympics has the “highest viewership for our target audience” and are popular with female consumers, he said.

The company’s involvement in ski and mountain sports has been “organic,” Battista said. “The athletes just pulled our product into their sport. You can’t ask for anything more.”

Vonn will have the Under Armour logo visible on the turtleneck she wears under her Spyder ski suit. “When you see top athletes wearing Under Armour, it speaks to the performance,” Battista said. “If it works for Lindsey in Vancouver, it’ll work for Jane or Joe Smith.”

Adrienne Lofton, senior director of women’s marketing, said Under Armour has seen the results of Vonn’s success reflected at the cash register. She said there was “a direct correlation” between “phenomenal” fourth-quarter sales and a TV commercial featuring Vonn during the holiday season.

Linking with sports stars also presents risks. In the post-Tiger Woods era, there is heightened awareness of that potential downside, but Battista is unconcerned. “We’re very careful who we pick to represent us,” he said.

The Swiss watch manufacturer Hublot also professes not to be worried about its sponsorship of Miller, the bad boy of skiing. The downhill racer, known for his reckless style on and off the slopes, was the flop of the games in Turin. Billed as a contender for five gold medals, Miller went home empty-handed and infamously told reporters he at least “got to party and socialize at an Olympic level.”

Nevertheless, Hublot, is producing a limited edition Bode Bang watch. A portion of the proceeds of the sale of each watch — only 500 have been made — will go to Miller’s Turtle Ridge Foundation, a nonprofit organization supporting health, diversity and sustainable living through sports.

Jean-Claude Biver, chief executive officer of Hublot, said Miller’s charitable efforts led to the sponsorship. “He’s an ambassador for us,” Biver said, adding, “If the results [at the Olympics] are fantastic, it can only help.”

Does Biver fear the controversy that tends to surround Miller? “He’s open, passionate and courageous, and all these aspects cannot be overshadowed by any negatives,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the consumer response to the Olympics has been strong in its host country, where winter sports have a particularly high profile. The Bay, the nation’s largest retailer, is selling Olympic-themed merchandise in 300 stores across Canada. The company installed a 22,000-square-foot Olympic Superstore at its flagship in downtown Vancouver, featuring a 100-foot wall devoted to Olympic pins and gear from other countries. “That’s what people come to the Games for,” said Bonnie Brooks, president and ceo.

The retailer outfitted the bearers of the Olympic torch as they traversed the country en route to Vancouver and is dressing the 30,000 volunteers.

Its most popular item by far is the Vancouver 2010 red mittens, which feature a maple leaf in the palm and retail for $10.

“It’s been a sensation across Canada,” Brooks said. “Sales have doubled our expectations.”


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