Roots reaches for the sky

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[toronto] Canada's well-known Roots brand takes flight this week as it continues to expand into virgin territory, adding an airline to the furniture, wilderness lodge and vitamins that already carry its name.

Once known only for its casual clothes, Roots has designs on a stronger North American and international presence led by Roots Air, launching today. Roots will first serve select Canadian cities, then move into the U.S. this summer, expanding to Los Angeles and later New York.

"It's for the first time actually giving someone a Roots experience," on a widescale basis, said Jennifer Cornwell, Roots' marketing director. Roots products evoke Canada's wide open spaces, warmth, comfort, adventure, relaxation and natural beauty. "It's a huge opportunity for us to expand."

It was only a few years ago that the 28-year-old Roots moved to license its name to major products beyond its own accessories and Canadian-made clothing. Those company-owned products now see yearly sales of $128 million through more than 200 retail stores in Canada, the U.S., Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

First of the Roots brand extensions was the Roots Home furnishings line, including leather chairs and maple beds. Roots Lodge, a 17-unit wilderness getaway, opened two years ago.

In mid-February, Roots multivitamins, produced and marketed by the Canadian unit of German pharmaceutical giant Boehringer Ingelheim, was launched. Handling that creative is Linda Correy Advertising, Toronto.

"Roots is about lifestyle: style, fashion and a way of doing things," said John Clinton, president-CEO of Grey Worldwide, Toronto, the agency that has the Roots Air assignment from Skyservice Airlines, Roots Air's operator. "It's very comfortable, very casual, very personable. I don't think Roots is a clothing brand. It's a lifestyle brand," he said.

Full-page newspaper ads for Roots Air evoke the brand with a tranquil scene, wherein a young boy in an inner tube floats lazily along the water, just as the sun glints over nearby trees. No airplanes are shown. "When was the last time an airline made you feel like this," reads the headline. "Business travellers will experience an odd feeling on March 26. It's called relaxation."

Advertising in airports stresses Roots Air's positioning to business travelers as a cheaper, more comfortable and service-oriented alternative to the dominant domestic carrier, Air Canada.

"We're not launching a new airline. We're undoing years of business travel," says one Roots Air billboard execution.

While the airline is its biggest challenge yet, Roots dismisses suggestions that it is expanding too far beyond the signature apparel that has been the heart of its success.

"A lot of people will say `That's not the right thing to do'," said Ms. Cornwell. "We will take those risks. I think that's what has made the brand what it is."

Retail industry analyst Chris LeTourneur, a partner at Thomas Consultants in Vancouver, British Columbia, suggests that besides business travelers, Roots Air "could carve out a niche" among the under-25 set and older baby boomers who like the youthful, outdoors-oriented appeal of the brand.

To be true to the brand, Roots executives stay hands-on in design, presentation and often marketing. "We look to make sure we align ourselves with the right property and the right people," said Ms. Cornwell, pointing to Roots Air operator Skyservice as an example. "We're not experts in every field. We don't know planes and don't pretend to. Lifestyle, comfort, a great experience-that's our expertise."

Passengers can hang out in the Roots Air lounge, having a drink and shopping at the Roots boutique. Once on the plane, even coach meals will be served on china. And one of Roots' own designers handled the uniforms, including trendy leather bomber jackets for the pilots.

Even as its product family continues to grow, Roots dismisses comparisons with Richard Branson's Virgin Group, another brand that has branched out beyond its initial roots.

"We haven't set out to follow Virgin," says Raymond Perkins, Roots' communications director. "They're a strong brand. We're a strong brand."

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