As athletes compete to win Olympic gold medals on the field, world-renowned brands fight for the audience’s mindshare. The Winter Olympics are a unique opportunity to showcase style with the latest in technology and optimal performance for sports and fashion brands.
In past years, it was the traditional global brands that dominated the arena. Nike, Adidas, Puma, and Under Armour were the champions of past Olympics – but this year, it’s rising star Lululemon, with its refreshing ideas and cutting-edge technology that is taking center stage at the Winter Olympics.
This shift – where we see traditional brands gradually losing their voice in the new business environment, reflects a more significant change in what athletes value and the growing importance of brands aligning their interests with a more purpose-led approach to sponsorship.
For years, big brands like Nike and Adidas used their huge marketing budgets for maximum publicity by signing with famous and high potential athletes. In this traditional model, the athletes and big brands are interdependent. The athlete gains financially and increases their prestige, and the brand basks in the reflected glory of these athletes. The relationship is built on rigid contracts that require athletes to maintain certain world rankings, medals, and other rigid indicators in their contracts. As a result, athletes are under strong financial pressure to participate in competitions even when they are injured or exhausted. It’s a model that is increasingly losing its appeal, when the wellbeing of the athlete is not prioritized, the value of the brand partnership loses its luster.
In recent years, some athletic brands have broken away from this traditional model. Simone Biles of the US National Gymnastics team did not renew her contract with Nike but instead signed with small sports brand Athleta.
Team Canada joined forces with Lululemon on a multi-year Olympics partnership that started with the 2022 Winter Games. This is a brand partnership that has landed extremely well with the athletes and audiences.
Lululemon benefits considerably from years of authentic ground-up community brand building. It built its reach and brand loyalty by partnering with yoga teachers, fitness trainers, and social media influencers across demographics and locations, and especially across Canada, where Lululemon was founded and is headquartered. In keeping with its position as a brand that doesn’t “sponsor,” “it partners.” Lululemon’s partnerships with athletes are built on sharing personal stories and building personalized social platforms.
For Lulumemon, the result of this partnership model is the impact of big brand sponsorships without the cost, with the added brand benefit of authentically reflecting the changing values of consumers who are looking beyond the medal count to consider the mental health and psychological wellbeing of athletes, many of whom are very young. For the athletes, the relationship with a smaller brand can be more satisfying as it is designed to be respectful and framed around a meaningful long-term relationship instead of just performance metrics.
Lululemon also uses the Olympics to showcase its brand’s design and technological innovation and link the event to the larger public interest in fitness. This is a savvy strategic move given their acquisition of Mirror, the online fitness classes and personal trainer brand, two years ago.
Lululemon did face some negative backlash for the high cost of their Olympic red gloves, which retailed for $68.00 CDN, much higher than the red mittens the Hudson Bay Company designed for the last few Olympic games. However, Lululemon used the controversy to justify the high price of its gloves by highlighting the high-tech and high-quality fabrics that they use.
Ultimately, the Lululemon and Team Canada partnership is a winner because it resonates with the community and larger conversation around wellness and fitness inclusivity that Lululemon has built its brand on. This is the best of what the Olympic spirit can inspire: confidence and excitement in sports and the idea that the highest form of competition is ultimately you versus you.