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Gildan launches Super Bowl ad so you know who makes your T-shirts

Gildan is probably the biggest apparel brand you’ve never heard of. But that could soon change after Super Bowl XLVII. The Montreal-based company—whose domination of the wholesale apparel market means its name is probably on that AC/DC or NHL All-Star T-shirt in your closet—has bought into the big game for the first time to boost its name recognition and grab consumers’ attention. Judging by the bewildered dude in leopard-print handcuffs, they’re on the right track.

“We hope it will help people make the connection between the T-shirt that’s already in their drawer and the brand behind it,” says Robert Packard, Gildan’s vice-president of marketing and merchandising. The Super Bowl spot—which will run in the first half in Canada and during the third quarter of the U.S. broadcast— is the start of a national marketing plan for 2013 that will include more TV ads and a digital strategy.

“The campaign is really targeted at the millennial mindset consumer,” says Packard. “Generally, 22 to 34-year-olds are very familiar with Gildan products and probably have half a dozen printed T-shirts that they bought at retail or got at a concert over the years. Our ads are aimed at them.”

Recenty, to get the Gildan name out from the back of the T-shirt tag and in front of consumers’ eyes, the company in recent years has been the official national sponsor of Triple-A Minor League Baseball, as well as the title sponsor of American college football’s New Mexico Bowl.

Last year the company sold more than 650 million t-shirts and 600 million pairs of socks. But while it rules the wholesale arena, Gildan just doesn’t have the same brand recognition among consumers as competitors like Hanes, Fruit of the Loom and Russell. Two-thirds of the company’s revenue comes from sales of blank T-shirts, fleece and golf shirts to distributors, who then sell the goods to screen printers. It’s now the largest supplier to the North American screen print industry, boosting its wholesale t-shirt market share from 10% about a decade ago to nearly 50% today. Its biggest challenge right now is building that brand name in the retail market, which is worth up to $7 billion and represents a massive opportunity. The company’s stock took a dive during the economic crisis to less than $10, but over the last year has gone from $21 to the $38 range.

“The average American consumer has about 10 of our products in their closet,” CEO Glenn Chamandy told me last fall, after his gamble on the company’s stock paid off. “We already have the distribution, so our plan is to advertise and market our brand in 2013. That’s the biggest goal for this fiscal year.”

With more than 100 million people watching, the Super Bowl’s not a bad place to start.