Student puts her mark on Olympic branding

Ph.D. student Susannah Cobb McMonagle has researched the branding seen in athletic wear.

Susannah McMonagle researched branding. | Courtesy SUSANNAH MCMONAGLE
Susannah McMonagle researched branding. | Courtesy SUSANNAH MCMONAGLE
Susannah McMonagle researched branding. | Courtesy SUSANNAH MCMONAGLE
Susannah McMonagle researched branding. | Courtesy SUSANNAH MCMONAGLE

It took more than 40 vendors from across the nation to create Ralph Lauren’s sweaters for Team USA in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The yarn was bought from a farm in Shaniko, Ore., the wool spun in Nazareth, Pa., material dyed in Hickory, N.C., and eventually put together in Commerce, Calif. 

The starred and striped ensemble is not only a nod to the American flag, but is key in establishing American corporate branding. “Polo” was stitched near the chest – the 230 athletes literally kept the brand name close to heart.

“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,” said Susannah Cobb McMonagle, a current Ph.D. candidate in an interview with Jeff Cronin, assistant director of communications at the School of Media and Communication.

McMonagle earned recognition when her research paper on global advertising titled “The Sportiest Catwalk on Earth: How Sport & Fashion Collide on the Olympic Stage” was awarded at the 2013 National Communication Association Conference.

McMonagle said watching the 2012 Summer Olympics in London inspired her to question the extent of company branding.

“I’m a sports junkie,” McMonagle said. “I’m working on my dissertation right now and looking at global advertising. The Olympics make a perfect case study because it’s one of our only real global mega-events.”

While corporate branding of the Olympics has been around for years, McMonagle said it only recently found an audience in the merging cultures of sports and the fashion world.

In 2011, high-end British designer Stella McCartney teamed with Adidas to design every uniform for the UK team in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

“That was kind of unheard of at the time,” McMonagle said. “It [was a] unique moment in promotional culture about how two different industries [used] each other as a jumping off point.”

Part of McMonagle’s research involved a study of how frequently fashion was mentioned at different Summer Olympic Games and found that the focus continually grew every four years since 2000.

“Fashion is slowly creeping in,” McMonagle said. “I got really intrigued about the press that goes into uniforms.”

Some criticized Ralph Lauren after the Team USA sweaters were unveiled on Jan. 23. The country took to social media to complain about “Grandpa’s rejects” and the obnoxious patriotic design.

Ralph Lauren’s creation was an answer to the controversy they caused two years ago by outsourcing their uniforms to China for the 2012 Summer Olympics. The company agreed to make a 100 percent American product for the Winter Games.

Relying on the assembly line at the Ball of Cotton knitwear company in California, it took more than 12 hours to manufacture a single jacket.

“There is so much thought and planning that goes into these uniforms that unless somebody reads something or really pays attention, they might not have a full understanding,” McMonagle said.

McMonagle said North Face, the company responsible for the performance jackets of the U.S. freeskiing team, had a star sewn into the inside of its design.

“The fabric of the star has been to the top of Mount Everest,” she said. “It’s supposed to symbolize that you can rise above, you can jump high and have this go-getter attitude.”

Winter athletes’ uniforms had a strong connection to the national anthem this year.

“[Snowboarder Shaun White’s uniform] is supposed to tie back to Francis Scott Key and the writing of our Star-Spangled Banner,” McMonagle said. “The alpine skiers’ uniforms fading from black to light blue symbolizes the ‘dawn’s early light’ over Baltimore Harbor in the War of 1812.”

The emphasis on American success was prevalent in the teaming of sports performance gear company Under Armour and aerospace and advanced technology company Lockheed Martin to create the uniforms for U.S. speedskaters.

“They’re supposedly super aerodynamic,” McMonagle said. “Lockheed Martin does not make clothes. They have more important fish to fry. It’s really cool that these big companies are coming together for such a huge project.”

McMonagle said she thinks it’s a positive thing that global branding has dominated so much of the Olympic Games because it’s necessary for athletes and audience to indulge in it.

“Look at NBC’s Instagram,” she said. “They have this big network with all the athletes, but they also have a network with you and me. The research I do looks into how brands are negotiating this very global phenomenon and the fact that we’re all connected, but also this very localized phenomenon that when I hop online I want it to feel like home to me.”

The “global flow” involves every aspect of the Olympic Games, including clothing. In order for that to be understood, McMonagle said it has to be looked at from a cultural perspective.

“From the outside, it might be this ugly sweater thing they wore for the opening ceremonies that’s getting a lot of heat,” McMonagle said. “But there have been all these different minds working on this to showcase what America is all about, how we will be perceived and what our values are.”

Jessica Smith can be reached at 

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