No smoking gun in COC/North Face Olympic dispute

January 24, 2014  |  Canadian Press with files from Sarah Barmak  |  Comments

The Canadian Olympic Committee is cautioning consumers about a marketing campaign it says infringes on Olympic trademarks.

The organization said it considers a line of North Face products, advertised as its International Collection, uses Olympic-themed advertising without being a sponsor and is misleading Canadians who may think they are supporting the country’s Olympic program with their purchase.

The North Face isn’t an official Olympic sponsor, supporter or licensee of the Canadian Olympic Team, the Committee said, adding it expects the company to “take immediate action to remedy the situation.”

North Face, an outdoor and sports clothing retailer, said in an email Wednesday that the company has long supported Canadian freeskiing athletes, including Canadian Freeskiing athletes Mike Riddle and Yuki Tsubota.

“We are not an official sponsor of the Canadian Olympic Committee or Team Canada and never indicated we were,” the company said, declining to comment further.

Christopher Overholt, chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee, said in a statement that the Committee “will vigorously defend its brand, including all its sponsors and licensees, against ambush marketing attempts to mislead Canadians.”

“I’m concerned that Canadians have purchased the North Face apparel assuming that by doing so they are supporting the Canadian Olympic Team, when that is just not the case.”

The Committee watches for instances of what it describes as ambush marketing, an advertising technique in which companies try to cash in on events like the Olympics without actually paying to be officially affiliated.

In cases of ambush marketing, it can be difficult to point to a smoking gun.

“It’s really a perception,” says Monica LaBarge, marketing professor at Queen’s University. “No one would be foolish enough to put the Olympic rings on something because that is trademarked. But something like the Maple Leaf isn’t trademarked.”

That being said, the potential to damage the COC’s partnerships is there.

“The issue around ambush marketing is less the legal did-they or didn’t-they,” says LaBarge. “The whole idea (of sponsorship) is based on the transference of positive feelings about the experience — about watching a Canadian athlete succeed at the Sochi games, and associating the Hudson’s Bay Company or Canadian Tire or Sport Chek with the positive feeling you get.

“Certainly it can be pretty confusing to consumers to have everyone and their brother associating themselves with the Olympics, because then it impedes the ability of those companies (with sponsorship deals) to create those associations.”

Ambushing puts intellectual property owners such as the COC in a public image bind, however. Pursue errant companies too forcefully, and the Committee risks looking like a brand bully.

“I think they have to be a bit careful about how heavy-handed they are,” says LaBarge. “In this case it looks fairly certain. If it was a just a Maple Leaf and a Canadian flag they could maybe get away with it, but putting in ‘RU 14′ and the date of the beginning of the Games is pushing the North Face into a less defensible position.”

The COC may feel they have little choice but to threaten legal action.

“They’re multi-million dollar deals that are multi-year often. When companies enter into these agreements, the presumption is that the organization offering the sponsorship is going to do something to (enforce) it.”

Ironically, the North Face could see a short-term bump to sales of the offending merchandise because of the exposure created by the legal threats.

“The media coverage they’ve gotten as a result of the COC chasing them down is probably helping them sell their products, because they haven’t been forced to pull them,” says LaBarge. “Trying to get it back from retailers is a fairly long process.”

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