Research unveils how brands leverage the Olympics

By Jeff Cronin
SMC Communications

Every two years, athletes from all over the world showcase their talents on the Olympic stage. But over the past decade, this stage has become more of a fashion catwalk.

Once again, Ralph Lauren is outfitting Team USA. Notice the Polo logo is prominently placed on the Opening Ceremonies uniform.
Once again, Ralph Lauren is outfitting Team USA. Notice the Polo logo is prominently placed on the Opening Ceremonies uniform.

With designers like Ralph Lauren and Armani behind the uniforms of Team U.S.A. and Team Italy, the high culture of fashion and the mass-culture appeal of sports have collided, says Susannah Cobb McMonagle, a PhD student pursuing her degree in media and communication. The increasing presence of fashion brands at the Olympics “points to emerging trends in promotional culture. The fashion and sport industries are learning that cross-promotion collaborations benefits both of them widely,” she says.

McMonagle’s research resulted in a paper entitled “The Sportiest Catwalk on Earth: How Sport and Fashion Collide on the Olympic Stage,” named a top paper at the 2013 National Communication Association conference.

With more than 4 billion viewers worldwide, the reasons a fashion brand would want to get into the Olympics game are obvious. But what really has taken Olympic fashion to the next level is how it’s discussed on social media. “Media democratization, made possible through Web 2.0, has given voice to a wide range of audiences who can participate in any conversation surrounding the Olympics—fashion crisis, sport performance, or neither,” McMonagle writes in her paper.

Because of the efforts of the brands and their audience, McMonagle says our Olympic athletes are now Olympic supermodels who are getting a lot of media attention for not just what they achieve, but what they’re wearing. McMonagle only found 13 mainstream newspaper articles that focused on fashion during the 2000 Games. That number tripled during the 2012 London Games.

It’s Greek to me
McMonagle’s research shows the relationship between fashion and the Olympics began to sprout in 2004 with an indirect link. Designers looked to the Athens Games to inspire Grecian styles and “toga-inspired” dresses into their fashion lines, she says. But the connection truly blossomed in 2008, when Ralph Lauren began producing the official Team U.S.A. uniforms worn at the Opening Ceremonies and on the medal podium. McMonagle feels the company is a perfect fit to clothe athletes many aspire to be just like, since the brand is “accessible, but high end.”

Susannah Cobb McMonagle is a PhD student in the School of Media and Communication.
Susannah Cobb McMonagle is a PhD student in the School of Media and Communication.

During London 2012, she says the designers truly came into their own, with designs that “combined the intricacies and attention to detail of the fashion industry to the functionality and comfortability necessary to that of professional athletes.” And now, McMonagle says, the worlds of sport and fashion have permanently unified, allowing for the cross promotion both to high- and low-end culture alike.

In Sochi, the Team U.S.A. sweaters will showcase the “Polo” name and the familiar horse logo very prominently.

“As sponsors and partners continue to play increased roles in the Olympic Games, I suspect that we will see more logos from the team outfitters in more and more prominent positions,” McMonagle says. “From what I understand, Ralph Lauren has pretty free range with the designs they did, and apparently, took advantage of the opportunity to tattoo their logo on Olympians’ chests.”

A winter’s tale
One of the challenges fashion designers face during the Winter Games is that the athletes’ bodies and faces are generally covered up, eliminating the use of sex appeal as a way to sell their brands.

“Some of the tactics being used at the Olympic Winter Games are much more strategic. For example, Procter & Gamble is a massive sponsor of the Olympics and released in October the Olympic athletes who would be part of the ‘P&G Team.’ Two successful figure skaters, Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold, are signed on to be Covergirl spokespersons. What is interesting here is that figure skating is one of the only winter sports in which the athletes’ faces are mostly uncovered,” McMonagle says.

She also notes that Pantene, P&G’s hair care line, sponsors skier Mikaela Shiffrin.

“A female skier has one physical characteristic able to be seen under her suit, skis, helmet and facemask—her hair flowing behind her as she bolts down the mountain,” McMonagle says. “I suspect her hair will be displayed prominently throughout the Games.”

As the relationship between fashion and sport continues to blossom, more products will sell and more consumers will demand apparel that caters to the what she calls the “fashionable fitness woman. This trend will continue to persist and thrive and these two industries are in fragile courtship that is bound to take interesting twists and turns.”

Media Contact:
Jeff Cronin