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Olympic Committee warns consumers about trademark infringements

TORONTO - The Canadian Olympic Committee is cautioning consumers about a marketing campaign it says infringes on Olympic trademarks.

The organization said it considers a line of North Face products, advertised as its "International Collection", uses Olympic-themed advertising without being a sponsor and is misleading Canadians who may think they are supporting the country's Olympic program with their purchase.

The North Face isn't an official Olympic sponsor, supporter or licensee of the Canadian Olympic Team, the Committee said, adding it expects the company to "take immediate action to remedy the situation."

North Face, an outdoor and sports clothing retailer, said in an email Wednesday that the company has long supported Canadian freeskiing athletes, including Canadian Freeskiing athletes Mike Riddle and Yuki Tsubota.

"We are not an official sponsor of the Canadian Olympic Committee or Team Canada and never indicated we were," the company said, declining to comment further.

Christopher Overholt, chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee, said in a statement that the Committee "will vigorously defend its brand, including all its sponsors and licensees, against ambush marketing attempts to mislead Canadians."

"I'm concerned that Canadians have purchased the North Face apparel assuming that by doing so they are supporting the Canadian Olympic Team, when that is just not the case."

The Committee watches for instances of what it describes as ambush marketing, an advertising technique in which companies try to cash in on events like the Olympics without actually paying to be officially affiliated.

"Olympics are the 'creme de la creme' of sponsorships and all other sponsorships are sort of below that," said Monica LaBarge, a marketing professor at Queen's University.

"It's certainly a huge deal and, unsurprisingly, the Olympic Committees take them pretty seriously because if you have sponsors who are paying millions and millions of dollars, then you have an obligation to protect that sponsorship."

While it's hard to control what other marketers do, she added, organizers will become more vigilant as it draws closer to the games.

Norm O'Reilly, a sports marketing expert with the University of Ottawa, said what companies seek when they pay to sponsor an athlete or event is exclusivity.

While there are ways for non-affiliated companies to get around the advertising rules, the guidelines themselves have become stricter.

"It's much, much less and much, much more controlled than it used to be," he said. "Where you see activity happening is in the social media world, where it's not as certain what you have control of and where borders fall."

Ambush marketing is a tactic that can seem worth the risk to many companies, O'Reilly added, since long-term studies by the university have shown that about 40 per cent of people in developed countries will support organizations that they believe are supporting their Olympic team.

"The COC is right in that misleading people will alter their purchase patterns in a way where they think they're supporting Canadian athletes but they are not," he said.

Hudson's Bay is the official outfitter of the Olympic team in Canada, while other sponsors include Canadian Tire, Sport Chek and Sports Experts, as well as Adidas.

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