Ralph Lauren Battles Backlash Over Outsourced Olympic Uniforms

PR Value Associated With Games Goes Up in Flames

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The Olympics are still 10 days away, but there's already one event that 's won widespread spectatorship: the debate over Team U.S.A. being outfitted in Chinese-made uniforms.

Following a report last week by ABC News revealing that the 2012 U.S. Olympic team -- a group that 's 530-athletes-strong, competing in some 25 sports -- will show up at the London games wearing red-white-and-blue blazers and berets crafted in China, apparel giant Ralph Lauren is facing public backlash.

Angry folks took to Twitter and to Ralph Lauren's Facebook page -- where there are hundreds of comments logged on the issue, with many folks vowing to stop buying the brand. Numerous politicians also used the opportunity to debate the perils of outsourcing vs. the free-market benefits of variety and low prices.

It's too late for anything to be changed this time around, but bowing under the pressure, Ralph Lauren vowed to take action in the future.

"For more than 45 years Ralph Lauren has built a brand that embodies the best of American quality and design rooted in the rich heritage of our country," the retailer said in a statement. "We are honored to continue our longstanding relationship with the United States Olympic Committee in the 2014 Olympic Games by serving as an official outfitter of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams. Ralph Lauren promises to lead the conversation within our industry and our government addressing the issue of increasing manufacturing in the United States and has committed to producing the opening and closing ceremony Team USA uniforms in the United States that will be worn for the 2014 Olympic Games."

China's news agency Xinhua called the outcry in the U.S. hypocritical, saying in a response: "China and the United States are important trade partners, whose bilateral trade volume exceeded 440 billion U.S. dollars last year. China has provided the U.S. consumers with high-quality commodities and necessities which are important to the U.S. citizen's daily life including the politicians.'"

It's not the first time that America's Olympians have worn uniforms stitched by foreign hands. As The New York Times reported, "at least since 1998, when the United States Olympic Committee first approached sportswear companies to liven up the look of its team, American athletes have worn ceremonial outfits that were manufactured in places far from home. For a decade, almost everything they wore to represent the United States at the opening and closing ceremonies was actually being designed and produced in Canada, by the sportswear company Roots, until the American company Ralph Lauren won those rights in 2008."

Back in 2001, the Army recalled -- and trashed -- hundreds of thousands of black berets made in China. The move was ordered after lawmakers said it was a violation of federal rules indicating that the Army was to use American-made products when available.

In the case of the U.S. Olympic Committee, it's not government funds that are being used; it's a private organization. Still, the fervor over the manufacture of the uniforms in China appears to have restoked the fire against foreign-made goods -- literally. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, speaking to reporters at a news conference, proposed that the Chinese-made uniforms should be put in a big pile and burned. There's even a Facebook page that calls for the current Olympic uniforms to be set ablaze.

There is a lesson here that brands must learn to be more mindful of their decisions, and how to explain them, in the face of potential backlash. And, brands that tout themselves as American-made or pride themselves on their American craftmanship must be especially vigilant about making sure their claims are true.

"Most likely Ralph Lauren got the sponsorship for the U.S. Olympic team for its PR value, rather than short-term profit expectations from manufacturing the uniforms," said Wagner Kamakura, a professor of global marketing at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. "Therefore, whatever cost savings they attained by off-shoring the production of the uniforms was not worth the PR risks. Of course, 20/20 hindsight is easy, but someone over there should be paying attention to these PR implications."

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