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Canadian firm goes for the gold

Retailer Roots is hoping to build on its Olympic success to outfit more athletes and consumers

This Olympics, Roots wants to go the distance.

Fresh from an Olympic marketing coup at the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Games, where Roots sold more than 1 million of its signature Team USA berets, the Canadian retailer is gearing up to outfit more athletes and consumers.

During the opening ceremonies for the XXVIII Olympiad tomorrow, US athletes will march in Athens in navy blue parade hats and vests bearing the Roots name. The Canadians will sport red and white Roots apparel with maple leaf designs. United Kingdom athletes will don Roots hats with the British flag.

''It takes moxie to hook in three major teams for the Olympics," said Richard Talbot, president and managing director of retail consulting firm Talbot Consultants International Inc. in Toronto, where Roots is headquartered. ''But in the past, they haven't really capitalized on their Olympic connections."

Roots promises this year is going to be different. True, the privately held company is rarely seen or heard from outside of Canada in off-Olympic years, and retail analysts estimate its annual sales have been stagnant recently, with Olympic years reaching about $300 million.

But a year ago, the company hired its first chief creative director -- Ernie Sulpizio, a veteran of fashion names like the Gap, Hugo Boss, and Club Monaco. Sulpizio is introducing a fall line that builds on Roots' heritage while aiming to redefine the brand. The new collection includes everything from shoes to bags, chinos to leather jackets, hoodies to oxford shirts, and plenty of denim.

On the heels of the Olympics, the retailer will advertise the new collection just as aggressively as it is promoting its Olympic wear. And next year, its stores -- 145 in Canada, 15 in Asia, and five in the United States -- will begin undergoing a complete overhaul.

''We will not be quiet after the Olympics," Sulpizio said. ''We'll be on billboards, in print, in newspapers, on sides of buses and trolleys in Canada. We'll do the same thing for holiday and spring."

Founded in 1973 by transplanted Americans Michael Budman and Don Green, Roots made its mark in Canada with its negative heel shoe, known as such because the sole is thinner at the heel than the forefoot. The retailer expanded into leather jackets and bags, the Beaver athletic sweatshirt, and the leather club chair.

It became an on-and-off presence at the Olympic Games beginning in 1976, when it outfitted the Canadian team in knee-high boots with an insulate lining and a negative heel. In 1988, it dressed the Jamaican bobsled team -- an outfit captured on the big screen in the movie ''Cool Runnings," starring John Candy.

The company's big break came at Nagano in 1998 when the Canadian team, outfitted from head to toe by Roots, won the fashion world's acclaim. The same year, Team USA wore hokey cowboy hats during the opening ceremonies.

The oft-told tale is that the US athletes were so envious of Canada's outfits that they later asked the US Olympic Committee to seek out a Roots contract. ''As we watched the opening ceremonies in Nagano, I remember thinking every country looked so bad," said Roots cofounder Budman. ''Canada looked so much better than everyone else. I couldn't believe the lack of enthusiasm that went into the other outfits."

Teddi Domann, the USOC's managing director of consumer products at the time, didn't confirm that story. But at the time, the USOC's research showed the Olympic brand wasn't cool, hip, or relevant to younger audiences. So the Olympic committee set out to change that.

In Roots, it saw the style and brand image it wanted. Roots could create consumer products -- T-shirts, track jackets, hats, sweat pants -- that were contemporary but drew on vintage styles that were recognizably Roots, but uniquely American at the same time.

At the Salt Lake City games, Roots dressed the US team for opening and closing ceremonies and victorious US athletes during the presentation of their medals.

In past years, USOC's Domann said, athletes resisted wearing the required clothing during medal ceremonies, either because of conflicts with other sponsors, such as Nike endorser Michael Jordan covering Reebok's vector symbol by draping himself in an American flag, or because they didn't like the clothes.

At the 2002 Winter Games, however, athletes wore the clothes without prodding from the USOC. Few foresaw how popular the Team USA beret would become in 2002, however. Roots' Budman recalls seeing US athletes and firefighters holding the tattered American flag from the fallen World Trade Center during the opening ceremony. The athletes wore Roots jackets and berets.

''That moment changed Roots forever," he said.

Though the Greek government blocked Roots from selling its line to the general public in Athens, the company is counting on its retail stores elsewhere, including a new boutique in London, and its Internet site to drive sales.

The company has also shipped $10 million of Olympic merchandise to US department stores, including Filene's and Nordstrom -- a move it hopes will help establish a relationship with US retailers, coaxing them to carry its product lines throughout the year. For the time being, however, the company is still formulating its US strategy.

So far this Olympic season, Budman said, sales in Canada and abroad are three times greater than the company anticipated. As for whether this year's poorboy-style hat, favored by musicians, tough-guy actors and others who reek of cool, will be as popular as the beret? You never know, said Budman.

But there's little doubt the exposure will prove a boon. Eric Wright, vice president of research and development at Joyce Julius & Associates Inc., a Michigan firm that assesses the value of sponsorships, estimates that Roots' visibility during NBC's broadcast of the opening ceremonies in 2002 was worth about $3.4 million in comparable advertising. How long does the buzz last?

''I don't have an answer for that," Wright said. ''The afterlife of event sponsorship, everything from Super Bowl to the Olympics, has declined in recent years. A day or two passes, and we're on to the next thing."

Naomi Aoki can be reached at naoki@globe.com.

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