Privately owned, Roots is a lifestyle brand based out of Toronto, Canada, that makes an estimated US$ 300 million in annual sales (€240M). The company sells leisure and athletic wear, golf wear, eye wear, pet wear, swim wear, luggage, linens, custom jewelry, and school supplies (in 1998, the brand even had a brief stint in the Canadian airline business). In 2004, Roots is the official outfitter not only of the Canadian Olympic team, but also for the United States, Great Britain, and Barbados. Sound hard to believe?
Roots’ unlikely ascent to Olympic outfitter is closely related to the origins of the Roots brand. The company was founded by Michael Budman and Don Green, two college friends from Detroit, Michigan, with a flair for sports and a lifestyle of leisure. The two entrepreneurs had met during summer camp in the Canadian Algonquins in the 1960s and developed a passion for the Canadian outdoors. In 1973, the young men moved to Canada and started a clothing business that expressed their fascination with the “Canadian way of life.” The first Roots products focused on quality sports and casual wear, including leather bags, jackets, sweatshirts, and shoes. Each item bore the imprint “manufactured in Canada” and a logo sporting a beaver, Canada’s national animal.
The “We Love Canada” strategy was a bold move at the time. When Roots started out, Canada was far from being a unified country, and patriotic tones could have triggered contempt from secession-minded consumers. Further more, neither founder was actually native born. Several factors saved the Roots brand from colliding with Canadian consumers: for one, the two founders have readily adopted the country as their own (both are married to Canadians and have lived in the country since the 1970s). Secondly, Budman and Green’s status as “friendly aliens” from the US kept them untainted by any political agenda. And third, the company has steadily created a broad base of goodwill by supporting and promoting Canada’s sports and tourism community early on.
Roots’ big break came in 1998, when the company was given permission to sponsor the Canadian snowboarding team at the Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. During the opening parade, audiences saw a sea of Canadian athletes clad in what Geoff Pevere calls “funky yet functional” red-and-white uniforms (Team Spirit: A Field Guide To Roots Culture, Doubleday, 1998).
The Roots outfits created a stir in the international sports community and beyond. Puff Daddy, Celine Dion, Pamela Anderson and Prince Charles were seen sporting the red beret of the Canadian team. Olympic teams from other countries applauded the outfits, and in 2001, Roots was accepted as official outfitter for the US Olympic team.
Being part of the international Olympic showcase has had a tremendous impact on Roots’ brand equity and sales. To cash in on this momentum, the company has pursued a marketing mix that focuses on strategic retail presence. Roots Olympic merchandise is sold in175 stores worldwide, including 140 independent stores in Canada. In the UK, Roots just opened its first store, to showcase its debut as outfitter of the British team. In the US, where sales are mostly solicited through the website, Roots sells its products through in-store boutiques. As The Globe and Mail recently reported, the company already sold US$ 6 to 7 million of Olympics-related goods in the US before June 2004 (9 June 2004).
If Olympic outfitting is such big business, how are Nike, adidas, and Puma positioned in this game? Companies competing for the role of Olympic outfitter might do so on a variety of levels. For instance they could supply the parade uniforms that the athletes wear during opening and closing ceremonies, the podium award outfits, or the casual attire that is being worn in the Olympic village. In 2004, US athletes are sporting Roots outfits during the opening and closing ceremonies, and they will wear Roots items during off-hours in the Olympic village. Adidas will provide the podium award outfits, while Nike and Puma will not have any role as official outfitters.
Choosing the outfitter(s) of the US Olympic team and the range of sponsorship is a decision made by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). Companies from any country in the world can apply for the role of outfitter by making a formal bid to the committee. As USOC revealed, one of the reasons why Roots succeeded was that “no other company has aggressively pursued sponsorship in the apparel category.” It also helped that Roots has already outfitted the US Team in 2002 and is known among the USOC as a “progressive company” that “really helps athletes.” Roots not only sponsors the official 2004 Olympic team but provides free outfits to the 2,000 plus athletes of the Paralympic team.
What happens after this year’s Olympic frenzy is unsure. Until 2008, Roots has the right to outfit the US Olympics team, and it will remain the official outfitter of the Canadian team for an indefinite time. This year, however, sportswear giant Nike woke up to the game and signed on as licensee and sponsor of the 2006 and 2008 US Olympic and Paralympic teams. It seems to be only a matter of time before other competitors join the game. Is Roots going to take on the challenge and fight for its lead?
Michael Budman was quoted saying that he wants to take Roots to the same level as Nike, adidas, or Puma (Globe and Mail, 9 June 2004). Yet when questioned on the subject, he responds: “We’re focused on improving our products, and being an independent, privately-owned company means we report to our customers first, not to shareholders.” Roots’ current plan is to increase its bustling online operations and to continue its expansion into the European market. If Budman and Green handle these ventures the way they have handled their Olympic involvement, it should be an exciting match to watch.