“When I first met them, I had the same re­ac­tion. Sta­ples? Re­ally?”

▶ It’s a ma­jor ap­parel sup­plier to the games’ part­ners in the U.S. ▶ Sta­ples is the world’s “largest pro­mo­tional prod­ucts com­pany”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - Eben Novy-Wil­liams

In May, soc­cer mid­fielder Carli Lloyd , swim­mer Missy Franklin, and fenc­ing champ Ibti­haj Muham­mad—three of the U.S. Olympic team’s big­gest stars— gath­ered at a Los An­ge­les air­plane hangar to take part in a me­dia event for Visa, one of the team’s big­gest spon­sors. For their 30-minute photo shoot, the three women chose from a rack of gar­ments bear­ing Visa’s logo on one side and the Olympic rings on the other. The stylish and col­or­ful shirts, sweaters, and hood­ies were all pro­vided by the United States Olympic Com­mit­tee’s most un­likely ap­parel part­ner: of­fice sup­ply king­pin Sta­ples.

“When I first met them, I had the same re­ac­tion. Sta­ples? Re­ally?” says An­drew Co­hen, Visa’s vice pres­i­dent for global brand and in­no­va­tion. “And they’ve done a great job with us.”

The com­pany bet­ter known for sell­ing desk chairs and Filo­faxes is a ma­jor sup­plier of U.S. Olympic mer­chan­dise. Much of the cloth­ing ath­letes will wear in com­mer­cials for the next two months is sup­plied by Sta­ples. So are wa­ter bot­tles, hats, and tote bags cre­ated by of­fi­cial spon­sors of the games. And the Olympic surf­boards for sale to Visa em­ploy­ees? Also Sta­ples.

The of­fice sup­ply re­tailer is one of two com­pa­nies—branded mer­chan­dise maker Ben­sussen Deutsch & As­so­ciates is the other— that pay an undis­closed amount for the right to sell the USOC’s 40 spon­sors all the co-branded mer­chan­dise they need. That can bring big busi­ness from com­pa­nies that plan mul­ti­ple events be­fore the games and may send large del­e­ga­tions of em­ploy­ees, clients, or cus­tomers to Rio de Janeiro this sum­mer. Sta­ples, which works with 80 per­cent of the USOC’s part­ners, will make more than 20 mil­lion items tied to the Sum­mer Games, ac­cord­ing to Donna Arm­strong, the com­pany’s di­rec­tor for spon­sor­ship ac­ti­va­tion. “Our mis­sion isn’t to say that we’re do­ing it, our mis­sion is to sup­port our part­ners,” she says. “Peo­ple don’t re­al­ize Sta­ples is the largest pro­mo­tional prod­ucts com­pany in the world, by far.”

Those pro­mo­tional prod­ucts, a $500 mil­lion an­nual busi­ness for Sta­ples, are part of a larger busi­ness-to-busi­ness model that’s been a grow­ing fo­cus for the com­pany since 2008, when it ac­quired of­fice-sup­plies whole­saler Cor­po­rate Ex­press for $2.6 bil­lion. Sta­ples now works with about half of the For­tune 1000 com­pa­nies, sup­ply­ing ev­ery­thing from of­fice prod­ucts and fur­ni­ture to print­ing ser­vices and ap­parel. Last year, Sta­ples’ $8.4 bil­lion in busi­ness-to-busi­ness sales were about 40 per­cent of its $21 bil­lion to­tal.

Those re­la­tion­ships have helped boost Sta­ples’ Olympic ven­tures; when an ex­ist­ing client be­comes an Olympic part­ner, Sta­ples typ­i­cally gets some of the busi­ness, too. The af­fil­i­a­tion can also pro­duce work be­yond the games. When gym op­er­a­tor 24 Hour Fit­ness part­nered with the USOC in 2004, it con­tracted with Sta­ples to pro­vide its Olympic mer­chan­dise. Sta­ples now han­dles much of the chain’s back-end ser­vices, in­clud­ing uni­forms for its 22,000 club em­ploy­ees, its jan­i­to­rial and of­fice sup­plies, and toys for the gym’s kids’ ar­eas.

The Olympics have a dif­fer­ent kind of brand than the Na­tional Foot­ball League, says Peter Zey­toon­jian, the USOC’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor for con­sumer prod­ucts. “Olympics spon­sors will have their en­tire cor­po­rate staff and VIPs wear­ing co-branded gear,” the former NFL exec says. “Whereas for NFL part­ners, it’s al­most al­ways con­sumer-fac­ing prod­ucts.”

Un­der USOC rules, Sta­ples’ prod­ucts can’t be worn by ath­letes on the ground in Rio—that high-vis­i­bil­ity right is re­served for higher-pay­ing re­tail part­ners Nike and Ralph Lau­ren. And Sta­ples’ co-branded items must show both the logo of a spon­sor and the Olympic rings at the same size. They also can’t be sold at re­tail, though sell­ing the prod­uct in em­ployee stores—also run by Sta­ples—is al­lowed.

Sta­ples’ part­ners say its 28 years of ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with the USOC means they don’t need to worry about all the Olympic brand­ing tech­ni­cal­i­ties. “It’s not a source of stress,” says Vic­to­ria Hoe, di­rec­tor for Team USA Part­ner­ships at 24 Hour Fit­ness. “They han­dle the guide­lines, they han­dle the ap­proval, and they know how it’s sup­posed to run.”

The bot­tom line Sta­ples, a big maker of ap­parel for Olympic spon­sors, will pro­duce more than 20 mil­lion items tied to this year’s games.

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