The Canadian Olympic Committee is threatening legal action against The North Face, claiming the outerwear brand associated itself with the upcoming Games in Sochi, Russia, without paying for an official sponsorship.
The current dispute is over a line of clothing North Face launched in November called the "International Collection." Some of the clothing, labelled "village" wear, is decorated with the Canadian flag (or other team colours in other countries), and sometimes featured a patch with the symbol "RU 14" – a reference to the Winter Games in Sochi. Other merchandise showed a world map with a red star where Sochi is located. A T-shirt featured the date of the opening ceremonies: "07.02.2014."
The problem? The North Face is not a marketing partner of the International Olympic Committee or Canadian Olympic Committee, and the COC says the collection violates its trademarks and other legal rights by suggesting in its design that the brand supports the Canadian Olympic team.
It's a common tactic known as "ambush marketing" – a particular problem for the Olympics.
The Committee says it wants to settle the dispute without going to court. It is exerting public pressure on the brand's parent company, VF Outdoor Inc., to make changes to the campaign.
"I've been involved with a number of leagues and a number of brands. The ambush marketing challenge against the Olympic brand … is maybe as big as exists in sport," said Chris Overholt, chief executive of the Canadian Olympic Committee. "It's got great content, great storylines, and as a result, many would like to be attached to it."
Olympic sponsorships – whether brands partner with the International Olympic Committee or a country's organization such as the COC – are typically multi-year, multimillion-dollar relationships.
To protect the value of those marketing partnerships, the COC and other Olympic organizations have dedicated teams looking for violations of intellectual property.
Clever ambush marketers will suggest a relationship with the Olympics, while carefully avoiding legally protected logos, such as the Olympic rings, or protected terms such as "Winter Olympics" or "Sochi 2014." Nike, for example, recently launched an ad boasting that hockey is our game, featuring the slogan "all ice is home ice" – with images such as a player skating past a fan with a Russian flag painted on his cheek.
In the case of the North Face, the COC argues that an "RU 14" patch featuring the Canadian flag is an implicit attempt to infringe on its trademarks and suggest an official association with the Canadian Olympic team. It also has photos it says show a sign in front of a Sporting Life store in Toronto. The sign says "The North Face 2014 Villagewear has arrived" and includes a drawing of the Olympic rings.
A release on the company's official blog at the time of launch expressly linked the promotion of the new collection to Sochi.
"The North Face International Collection celebrates the excitement of the upcoming competition in Sochi, and the stage it has created for the world's elite winter athletes in 2014," action sports product director Jasmin Ghaffarian was quoted as saying on the website. "The North Face is honoured to commemorate this highly anticipated moment in sports history."
Beyond alleged intellectual property infringement, the COC says it can also show that the North Face violated the fine print on the back of event tickets for the Games. It ran a contest offering a trip for two "to Sochi … to attend a major international sports competition, February 19, 2014 – February 23, 2014" as one of the prizes. According to the COC, ticket transfers for purposes of a contest require permission. The COC also argues that this type of promotion violates Canada's Competition Act and consumer protection laws against false and misleading advertising.
"The North Face has been a long-standing supporter of the free-skiing movement, including our sponsorship of Canadian Free-skiing athletes Mike Riddle and Yuki Tsubota," Francois Goulet, vice-president and general manager of VF Outdoor (Canada) Inc., said in an e-mailed statement. "We are not an official sponsor of the Canadian Olympic Committee or Team Canada and never indicated we were. We have no further comment."
Certain "village" clothing is no longer easily searchable on the North Face website. Mr. Goulet would not respond to questions about whether the brand has responded to the COC's complaints or intends to make any changes to its promotion of the line.
The COC sent a cease and desist letter to the company on Jan. 10 laying out actions it could take to avoid litigation – including specifying that it is not an official sponsor.
The Committee has been making an attempt over the past few years to demonstrate a more reasonable response to brands using Olympic-style imagery in ads. For example, Mr. Overholt said, the COC recently worked with Tim Hortons Inc. to make sure an ad designed to rouse national sentiment around Olympic athlete Sidney Crosby was above board. The ad features average Canadians streaming on to the ice to back up Mr. Crosby in a game and says hockey "brings Canadians together." It is convenient timing for a patriotic ad, but Mr. Overholt said it does not encroach on Olympic marketing partners.
"When we see something as egregious as we've seen from the North Face, we have a responsibility to respond," he said.