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The red mittens that united a nation

Red Mittens at Vancouver Olympic GamesI got my first glimpse of the red mittens on February 12, 2010 when the Canadian Olympic team marched into BC Place for the Opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

Little did I know that those cute red mittens represented a year-long program to unite Canadians behind their national athletes and claim the 2010 Winter Games as “Canada’s Games.” 

(Photo source:  Time.com)

I had the privilege of hearing the full story from Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC) Communication Director Suzanne Reeves at the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) 2010 World Conference in Toronto. 

Reeves offered her session’s attendees a rare look into the inner workings of a host city’s Olympic Committee, and the months of preparation that go into pulling off an international event of such magnitude.

While I enjoyed hearing about the thought processes which drove the design of the logo and visual identity, and appreciated the insight into VANOC’s crisis response efforts following the tragic death of a Georgian athlete on the first day of the Games, for me the highlight of the presentation was the backstory of those red mittens.

As Reeves told it, the VANOC team decided early on to adopt the theme of “Canada’s Games” and embrace the 2010 Winter Games as an opportunity to show the rest of the world “…who we are and what we can do.”  Part of that effort was a fundraising initiative called “Own the Podium 2010” designed to help underwrite training and equipment for Canadian Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls.

As the VANOC team began planning for the Olympic Torch Relay, they brainstormed ways to incorporate their theme and the Own the Podium initiative into local events and tap into their citizen’s national pride.  Thus, the Red Mitten Campaign was born.

VANOC approached Hudson’s Bay Company, Canada’s oldest retail company, with a request to design and distribute a limited-edition, red knitted wool mitten with the Canadian maple leaf on the palm and the Olympic logo and rings on the back.  The mittens had to be knitted and made of wool – a throwback to the mittens worn by Canadian school children for the past century.

Hudson’s Bay Company agreed to sell the mittens for $10 per pair, and donate the proceeds to the Own the Podium initiative.  That way, each Canadian who purchased a pair of mittens was, in fact, sponsoring an Olympic or Paralympic athlete and supporting their national team. 

With the route of the Olympic Torch Relay in hand, VANOC worked with Hudson’s Bay Company to “seed” local stores with mittens prior to the Torch’s arrival.  The retailers used the theme, “Wear Your Heart on Your Hands” to promote sales of the mittens as part of the countdown to the Torch Relay.  
Local event organizers found their own unique ways to personalize the Red Mitten Campaign for their town – festooning statues, buildings and local landmarks in giant red mittens. 

The rest, as we know, is history. 

For months leading up to the Games, news footage of the nationwide Torch Relay included images of spectators, athletes and torch bearers alike waving their red mittens. 

According to one story I read, more than 2 million pairs of mittens were purchased during the course of the Torch Relay.  And once the Games opened in Vancouver, those red mittens became *the* accessory to own, with more than 1.5 million pairs sold during the two weeks of the Winter Games.

In case you can’t tell, I absolutely love this story.  It exemplifies a communications campaign that works on all levels – it unifies different groups of people around a common goal, it tells a story that motivates and uplifts, and it demonstrates the power of collaboration, cooperation and national pride.

Congratulations and thank you to VANOC and the people of Canada on a wonderful, memorable 16 days in February.  And if you happen to have a spare pair of those mittens lying around…well, you know where to find me.

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