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  • Posted by: Erin O'Keefe on Tuesday, March 2 2010 04:49 PM | Comments (0)

    I’m holding myself back; attempting herein to exercise some manner of journalistic restraint.

    Faced with the prospect of wrapping up 17 days of serious Olympics glory, I’m full of superlatives. Visitors to the games can’t stop talking about the incredible athletic performances, classic West Coast warmth, the genuine quality of a good Hoser party, and maybe just a little pride about The Greatest Hockey Game of All Time.  I went out to experience the Olympics, but like so many other Canadians, was not alone in my astonishment of just how patriotic we can be.

    But I also went out to the games with some nerdy brand curiosity: which brands would really deliver an Olympics-worthy performance, and which would take advantage of a superficial alignment with sports? Which brands – Canadian or international – would deliver intelligent, imaginative and inspiring brand experiences beyond the promises their ads were making?

    Quick reminder: there was nothing scientific about my methodology, so I’ll wrap up by listing favourites based on the most visible brand categories at the 2010 Olympics: retail, corporate, financial services, and place/country brands.

    Retail brand: Hudson's Bay Company HBC remains a stand-out brand for its ability to garner mass appeal (mittens on Oprah!), but also for its commitment to contribute US $4 per pair of mittens to Own The Podium, the group that supports athletes and was arguably a critical factor to Canada’s record 14 Gold Medals (best ever by a host Winter Olympics nation, in case you didn’t know). They had originally capped the contribution, but the overage will go back to sport, including Paralympic athletic endeavors.

    Corporate: GE Beginning with a TV ad series entitled Healthymagination, GE demonstrated a genuine commitment to health while remaining true to their brand idea. It was intelligent for GE to use its masterbrand in all of its advertising, considering our interaction with GE as consumers may be limited. Rather than create an ad series that played too hard on the Olympics, they chose a subject that helped us learn more about the diversity of their offering on a subject relevant to viewers. On CTV, GE was the sponsor for a terrific series with Dr. Bill Wells, a Toronto-based physiologist and sports expert who taught viewers about the biomechanics that power our athletes. Their mobile medical units were on-site throughout the games to keep athletes healthy as well. Great work, GE.

    Financial: RBC It's no question that RBC owned the games from a visibility perspective. I’d be surprised if any games visitors would have missed the fact that RBC has been supporting Olympic athletes since 1947, or that it was the force behind the torch relay. That's an incredible commitment of time and effort and our athletes really have benefited from it. However, I would have liked RBC to have come up with more creative campaigns than having Arbie – their awkward little bowler-hat wearing mascot - participating in different sports. It would have meant more to understand just how much RBC’s employees felt connected to the games – and I can only imagine that effort would have done a lot for internal engagement as well. Part of the reason RBC won in the category was that so many other institutions were missing in action. I'd love to know why other FIs didn't even show up to the race.

    Place: Canada In spite of some inspiring and exciting country experiences, including the Sochi 2014 house, I have to give the place branding medal to Brand Canada. I could list a number of examples from my own highly biased point of view, but I think I’ll let some international journalists do it for me. After all, what’s a better sign of a strong brand than un-prompted endorsements?

    Three quotes from the papers over the last 24 hours. And to these journalists, thanks for visiting!

    From NBC’s Brian Williams:

    Thank you, Canada: For being such good hosts…For your unfailing courtesy…For your (mostly) beautiful weather…For your unique TV commercials -- for companies like Tim Hortons -- which made us laugh and cry…For securing this massive event without choking security, and without publicly displaying a single automatic weapon….For having the best garment design and logo-wear of the games -- you've made wearing your name a cool thing to do….For not honking your horns. I didn't hear one car horn in 15 days -- which also means none of my fellow New Yorkers rented cars while visiting…For sharing Joannie Rochette with us…For reminding some of us we used to be a more civil society…Mostly, for welcoming the world with such ease and making lasting friends with all of us.

    From the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan:

    …all Olympics are the same. What made this one special were the people. I will leave it to the Canadians to explain why, but the fact is they came out as never before to flout their Canadianosity, or whatever you want to call it. They got behind their athletes and they got together here to have a good time, using the Olympics as an excuse to throw themselves a giant two-week party. They lined up in astonishing numbers outside Hudson’s Bay Company store to buy merchandise, creating a revenue stream no one could ever have imagined. Not for one second during these past two-plus weeks could you forget just exactly where you were. It was CanadaCanadaCanadaCanadaCanadaCanada!, all day and all night, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.

    You may have heard that Vancouver is a great city, but it’s better than that. On a good weather day - and we had a spectacular five-day run in the middle of the Games - it is stunningly beautiful, and it is an excellent eating, drinking, and shopping city. This is the only Olympics in which I have written stories to the sound of sea planes taking off and landing. I’m going to miss that.

    From the LA Times’ Bill Plaschke:

    It was after midnight, a week ago, the U.S. had earlier defeated Canada in a preliminary-round Olympic hockey game, the emptying streets wet, the mood soggy. I was returning from our nightly visit to the giant four-pronged Olympic flame with my 15-year-old daughter, Mary Clare, who was wearing an American flag like a cape, and a smile like a necklace. It was one of the first times she wore something that didn't represent her high school or favorite sports team. It was one of the first moments she may have realized the pride in being an American.

    And here came the Canadian. He appeared to be in his late 20s. He was wearing a scruffy beard, a pale bandanna, and wild stare. He jumped in front of Mary Clare on a darkened patch of sidewalk and started shouting.

    "Eh, eh, eh!" he said. She froze. Her brave and resourceful father also, um, froze. At which point the man stuck out his hand. "High-five, eh?" he said. "Great game, America. You won fair and square. We'll see you in the finals." Before disappearing into the shadows, the man looked back at me with what appeared to be a wink. "I know what you were thinking, but that's not how we do it here," he said. "We're Canadian."

    I thought of this incident later when, spying on Mary Clare's Facebook page as all brave and resourceful fathers should do, I came across a line about her Olympic experience that stunned me in its simple honesty.

    "I love Canada," she wrote.

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  • Posted by: Erin O'Keefe on Saturday, February 20 2010 11:13 PM | Comments (0)

    There's something really special about an Olympic Gold medalist. They have the power to inspire us to achieve our greatest goals, no matter how much a stretch those goals may seem. They've committed most of their lives to one very specific thing, and that focus has required the removal of other obstacles, distractions, and other opportunities for success. I know many Olympic athletes who put off school, romance or a well-paying job to chase their dreams.

    Jon Montgomery is Canada's 4th Gold medalist at Vancouver 2010, and while I'm proud of all of our medalists, there is something different and awesome about Montgomery that I have to acknowledge. So many of the over-referenced, over-played personal brands that fill our tabloids seem to gain notoriety because of scandalous behavior or gratuitous plays for publicity. Olympic athletes bring a certain purity of purpose that is so energizing, and ultimately do more for motivating us to be our best selves.

    After winning the Gold in skeleton yesterday, Montgomery commented on what led to his success: the right training, confidence, and some pretty perfect runs. After today's medal ceremony he talked more about his journey to gold, saying "it was pretty realistic for me to quit, but I never believed that". So far, this doesn't sound too unusual for an Olympic athlete. What's so unique about Jon is that he adds an awesome personality to the mix.
    First of all, he's a skeleton racer: one of the craziest, most risky sports around. Second, he's a car salesman and auctioneer by day, hailing from a tiny town in Manitoba (a colder Minnesota). When he walked through Whistler village last night, surrounded by friends and family, he strutted like he owned the place. When someone passed him a pitcher of beer, he accepted it gladly and drank without missing a step, proceeding to auction his Gold Medal Pitcher to the crowd mid-way through the interview. Best Gold moment: at tonight's victory ceremony, Jon leaned down to brush the podium off before jumping onto it and punching his fists in the air with joy. 

    Before you overdose on Canadian mush here, I'll get to my point. We need a whole lot more Jon Montgomery in Canada.

    It's already in us, but we need to celebrate it when we see it, and build it into everything we do: the risk-taking attitude, the resilience against adversity, the ability to focus on something and do it exceptionally well, and importantly, the confidence to embrace our one-of-a-kind, wacky personality. I have seen far too many Canadian brands buckle under pressure from international competitors or diversify to the point of dilution in fear of losing relevance against leading brands. I have seen marketing teams that hesitate when faced with the opportunity to go to market as a bold, ambitious brand, because it would require real guts and confidence to get there. In many ways, we're a country full of challenger brands and we have to push ourselves if we have any hope of becoming strong global brands.

    Back to Montgomery: he's topping my list of personal brands that are medal worthy, because he's intelligent for his focus and dedication; imaginative for being decidedly different and true to his character on and off camera; inspiring for his ability to embrace risk and adversity.Who do you think is an Olympic people brand?

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  • Posted by: Erin O'Keefe on Friday, February 19 2010 10:44 PM | Comments (0)

    “I didn’t know Canadians were this patriotic – I thought Americans were more. Not even close" - Shani Davis, US Gold Medalist, 1000M Long-track Speed Skating

    In Canada, we've long had a habit of defining ourselves by what we are not. We're not American. We appreciate our British roots, but we're not just a Commonwealth nation. We don't carry guns. Most of the time, we're not boastful.

    But something interesting is happening at the Vancouver Olympics, and across the country: Canadians are wearing their hearts on their shirts - any shirts. Made by any old company that will slap a maple leaf or corny Canadian phrase onto a piece of fabric. We're a little alarmed by our new-found patriotism. All of a sudden, we seem to have a clearer feeling about who we are.

    We're proud enough to shout it, to strike up our National Anthem among strangers, to start a game of shinny in the streets of Vancouver (that's pick-up hockey for the rest of you). Journalists are calling it the New Patriotism: in the Vancouver Sun, Shelly Fralic says it will "imbue in us a reinvigorated sense of pride that has little time for detachment and will thrive and survive beyond the obligatory July 1 fireworks and periodic hockey fever flag-waving".

    I left Toronto early this morning for Vancouver, happily sporting my HBC Canada sweater, red mittens in tow. I wasn't the only one at the gate covered in Olympics gear. A couple had on Nike Hockey jerseys, and someone had the Lululemon Hockey Dude shirt. After commenting on Roots vs. HBC as suppliers of Olympics clothing, I had a number of requests for comment on these and other competitive sportswear companies. What I'm struck with is the fact that it doesn't matter to fans whose shirt they're wearing: it's really just about Canada.

    Nike is most prominent on Hockey jerseys, but they also support our athletes with funding. I'd like to know more about exactly what they do - but let's face it: we're buying the jerseys regardless of how the brand contributes to our athletes' success. Will sponsorship translate into long-term loyalty for the brand? What does Nike, or Roots, or HBC stand to gain from their clothing lines once the games are over - if we're willing to don anything that screams Canuck?

    Lululemon has taken a more grassroots approach to Olympics clothing. Not an official supplier of any kind, Lululemon has attracted some criticism, considering they are a Vancouver-based brand that is proud of its Canadian heritage and resoundingly west coast. Their Hockey Dude shirts and helmet toque are two pieces of Canadian garb that make them the underdog of games gear. Some might argue that it's intelligent for Lululemon to avoid overt praise or support of the Olympics, considering its yoga-inspired brand is more about being present and practising healthy behaviours than it is to be gunning for gold. Still, the clothing line is imaginative in its ability to capture the ruddy appeal of hockey guys in a way that's uniquely Lululemon. I'm often inspired by Lululemon's brand - sustainable actions, powerful words that motivate us to be our best selves everyday. Perhaps most true to their brand, they haven't wavered in supporting communities by inspiring their employees to take on personal efforts to create 'community legacies'. Now that's inspiring.

    But back to the value of these brands in Canada: is the return on brand investment worthwhile if we're willing to wear any brand that dresses us in our patriotism? And if we're spending our money on their garb and building their brand presence in our country, what is it we expect of them in return?

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  • Posted by: Erin O'Keefe on Tuesday, February 16 2010 11:49 PM | Comments (0)

    Today's Olympic brands are two clothing companies who compete for Canadian loonies: Roots and HBC (the Hudson's Bay Company). When it comes to performance, which Olympics brand is stronger at inspiring us, through intelligent and imaginative approaches to brand expression and experience?

    Roots is positioned as a genuine, rugged, and passionately Canadian sportswear brand. It's as Canadian as going to summer camp, and we've worn the classic t-shirts and sweatpants regardless of fashion trends. When Roots gained celebrity status by dressing Canadian Olympians at the 1998 Nagano games, we were feverishly proud: everyone from Robin Williams to Prince William was wearing the beret! Proud that is, until it used its success to win other contracts, and started providing Olympics gear to other countries. Incredulous that a business might want to make money, we were aghast - where was its loyalty?!

    Notwithstanding the brand's ‘indiscretions’, we've been drawn back to Roots because of its consistent alignment with sports—rather than appear to be opportunistic of the games, Roots interest appears to be genuine.
    Right to Play, its principal charity, is an international humanitarian organization that trains coaches and community leaders to work with more than 700,000 children to develop basic life skills through sport in the most disadvantaged regions of the world. They have also developed a unique clothing line in time for the Olympics: the International Collection. The line includes garments with dozens of nations represented—a reminder that the Games are not just about our home nation, but about connecting to each other and the world through sport. How very Roots…and how very Canadian.

    In 2005, HBC won the contract as official supplier for our Olympic athletes. It didn't quite hit the mark in Beijing, but it's hard to debate the popularity of the 2010 garments: red yarn Olympic mittens emblazoned with a maple leaf on the palm are a hit. A red t-shirt actually makes our national anthem cool (True North, Strong and Free!). And then there are the toques: retro pom-pom, fashioned just as Bob and Doug McKenzie would have wanted. However, many of us are torn about this brand. We're proud that it's the oldest company in Canada - perhaps the oldest company in North America. We love the history and the imagery this evokes of a trading company in the wilderness, and who isn't is a fan of the striped blankets? Bonnie Brooks, the President and CEO, has made great strides in improving the clothing lines and becoming the spokesperson for the brand. In Vancouver, the Bay is hosting an athletes' families lounge for the games, creatively building an experience that provides comfort and familiarity. We've been given so many reasons to like this brand. And yet, has this translated to a better in-store experience?

    I'll be interested in the experience created by these two Canadian brands in Vancouver. In the meantime, they're both contenders for Olympics medal consideration:

    Intelligent: Roots and HBC both behave in ways that align with their positioning; their behaviours are not inconsistent with their long-term proposition. Roots' commitment to Right to Play gives it a strong standing both during and after the games.

    Imaginative: Roots' International Line creatively connects with us because the concept takes us beyond our country allegiances, and even beyond our own developed world of sport. HBC's family lounge is said to be a great environment for athletes and their families –definitely original.

    Inspiring: While HBC looks to our past to generate emotional responses, Roots might score higher for setting our sights on the future through Right to Play.

    What do you think?

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