VANCOUVER, B.C. – Yoga-wear retailer Lululemon Athletica (TSX:LLL) is selling a special edition of clothing that could be far from calming for Olympic organizers.
The Vancouver-based company rolled out its “Cool Sporting Event That Takes Place in British Columbia Between 2009 & 2011 Edition” clothing at stores across Canada on Monday.
The hooded sweatshirts, toques and T-shirts are being sold just two months before the 2010 Games begin in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.
Lululemon, known for its cheeky marketing campaigns, insists this clothing line is about patriotism, not ambush marketing ahead of the Olympics.
The hoodies, which have the special edition label inside, come in various colours representing Canada, the United States, Germany and Sweden – the four countries Lululemon thinks will represent the most international visitors for the Games. What’s more, the Canadian sweaters have gold zippers, while the U.S. ones are silver.
The Olympic organizing committee, known as VANOC, is notoriously protective of the Olympic brand, threatening and following through with legal action against any businesses trying to hone in on Games trademarks.
VANOC said late Monday it will review Lululemon’s new clothing line to see if it breaks any rules.
Eric Petersen, Lululemon’s head of community relations, said the company did its research and isn’t breaking any Olympic marketing regulations.
“We followed the letter of the law on what we believe we can do,” Petersen said. “We definitely don’t like ambush marketing and don’t feel this is anything like that.”
Petersen said their “Cool Sporting Event” tagline doesn’t speak to the 2010 Games specifically.
“It’s really for our guests to read into it what they want,” Petersen said.
Keith McIntyre, president of marketing firm K. Mac & Associates, said if the company hasn’t crossed the line, it has come close.
“I haven’t seen anything even close to something like this from a marketing perspective outside the Games,” McIntyre said.
However, McIntyre said Lululemon is known for its clever marketing and likely has an action plan should its new products face scrutiny.
One of the retailer’s most memorable stunts was when it offered a free outfit to the first 30 people who showed up naked to a new store opening in 2002. Lululemon has also poked fun at itself by spray-painting “sell-out,” “cult” and other graffiti on its storefront windows.
But some of its marketing has also backfired. In 2008, the federal Competition Bureau forced Lululemon to remove claims about health benefits of seaweed in its VitaSea clothing line from the labels.
Lululemon isn’t the only company said to be capitalizing on the Games coming to Canada.
Last month, clothing retailer Roots launched its “Canada Collection,” line of outerwear in association with MasterCard Canada. The collection helps raise funds for the Right to Play sports charity, which has ties to Olympics of the past, but whose logo was barred from athlete uniforms this time around.
Roots co-founder Michael Budman said the new line wasn’t launched to capitalize on the Games.
“It’s to capitalize on celebrating the country, which is in vogue now,” Budman said, adding that “2010 will be a huge year for tourism.”
McIntyre said the shopping public should expect a lot of Canada-themed products as Games time approaches, but companies should beware.
“If the consumer is led to believe there is some sort of association (with the Games) then VANOC would have some case to go after them, and claim ambush marketing,” McIntyre said.
VANOC has exclusive Canadian marketing rights to Olympic brands from Jan. 1, 2005 to Dec. 31, 2012. Only official sponsors are allowed to market products under the brand.
Bill Cooper, VANOC’s director of commercial rights management, said the rules are in place in large part to protect the investments of its paid sponsors.
Cooper had yet to see Lululemon’s new product line and couldn’t comment on it specifically, only to say it will be reviewed.
“Just because an advertiser finds a creative ways to avoid direct use of recognizable brand elements doesn’t necessarily in and of itself mean that they have avoided building an unauthorized commercial association with the Games,” Cooper said.
Cooper wouldn’t comment specifically on the Roots collection. However, he said “generic national product messaging is nationally owned. It’s not proprietary to one group.”
Cooper said there has been voluntary compliance in almost all cases where companies have crossed the line with their products.
Lululemon had bid in the past to be the official outfitter of Canada’s Olympic team, but lost to Hudson’s Bay Co. in 2005 for the 2006 Games in Italy.
The Bay won the contract to outfit the Canadian team from the 2006 Olympics until 2012.
“If the opportunity came up again we would definitely consider it strongly,” Petersen said of future bids.