This article is part of our ‘Marketing Strategies’ series, an in-depth look at how some of the world’s most successful companies promote their brand and their products.
Business leaders can often feel intimidated when entering competitive industries, fearing that their innovative products, clever marketing techniques and ambitious sales strategies will fall short of reaching the success of dominant market leaders. The inspirational upward trajectory of American sportswear brand Under Armour, however, provides an astonishing example of a brand that accomplished just that, offering valuable lessons to entrepreneurs seeking to achieve the same.
Founded in 1996, Under Armour set about realising its vision: "to inspire you with performance solutions you never knew you needed and can't imagine living without." It delivered on this promise to consumers by producing athletic apparel with new fabrics and designs geared towards comfort and convenience, positioning its products as "innovations built to perform."
For the first years of its operation, the business focused on selling its signature moisture-wicking compression athletic tops. It then steadily incorporated new, original materials into its expanding apparel portfolio to better serve athletes' endurance and performance. These included patented creations, such as HeatGear, ColdGear, and AllSeasonGear materials, before moving into specialised sporting footwear, women's apparel, and more.
As a result, Under Armour quickly proved itself as a serious contender for retail giants Nike and Adidas, and is today the world's fourth-leading athletic apparel brand with sales of $5.2bn last year. In 2019, the company also claimed a spot among the world's top ten most valuable sporting brands, with a staggering brand value of $3.5bn.
So, how did a company that began in the basement of its founder’s grandmother reach such heady heights? We’ve taken a closer look at the company’s marketing approach to find out.
Under Armour's Marketing Strategy
Under Armour's marketing strategy has significantly contributed to its popularity among professional and amateur sportsmen and women. The company invested an impressive $579m in promotional techniques in 2019, focusing on impactful sporting partnerships, celebrity endorsements, as well as online and offline communications.
This year, Under Armour is looking to increase advertising spending to as much as 12% of its global revenue (roughly $632m), and has affirmed that its marketing mix will become even more varied in an effort to reinforce brand consideration and positioning.
Most of the company's marketing efforts seek to foster a close community among consumers and wider sporting enthusiasts. Through its UA Community, Under Armour engages with audiences, sharing its corporate values, philanthropic initiatives, and ways in which buyers can get involved. This organic interaction goes a long way to earning buyers' respect, consideration, and positive brand perception, thereby influencing long-term loyalty.
This approach comes from the business' deep understanding of the care-abouts, motivations, and expectations of its primary customer base.
Under Armour's US customers are mostly male (69% compared to female buyers) and aged between 18 and 24, suggesting a Generation Z-inspired target market. They are sporting amateurs, enthusiasts, or athletes, attracted to the brand not only by its performance-oriented products, but also its close alignment with their own morals and views.
These are captured in Under Armour's eight core team values, among which are: Stand for Equality, Stay True, and Think Beyond. They embody the company's commitment to promoting gender and race inclusivity, corporate transparency, and environmental sustainability.
Indeed, representation of these values is often incorporated into Under Armour's marketing campaigns and activities, passionately advocating for important sporting and social issues while also highlighting how the company addresses them itself.
Budding businesses can learn from this approach and use detailed market research not only to guide the delivery of promotional campaigns to target audiences, but also to delve deeper into the passions and expectations of consumers and align with them. This research may be conducted through a combination of activities, including focus groups, consumer interviews, in-store and online feedback forms, and more.
Under Armour adopts a variety of exciting marketing tactics to reach sport and fitness enthusiasts. Its messaging consistently focuses on reiterating the brand's mission that "Under Armour makes you better" through its performance-enhancing apparel, while campaign imagery captures the excitement of physical training and competition.
Here are some of the key ways in which Under Armour has successfully targeted consumers.
Key Sporting Partnerships
Early on, Under Armour founder Kevin Plank realised that striking partnerships with college, university and professional sports teams would be extremely helpful in promoting the brand's products to relevant new audiences. Following sizeable successes with college and NFL football teams, the company became the official supplier of the National Hockey League (NHL) in 2001, and has continued to sign similar deals ever since.
As well as sports organisations, Under Armour currently boasts multimillion-dollar agreements with a variety of sports teams, including in football, motor racing, baseball, basketball, rugby, and athletics. The brand spent $75m on sponsorships in 2016, with this figure continuing to increase since that time.
These agreements see teams don Under Armour apparel throughout training and competitions, as well as promote the brand's logo across their marketing and communication materials. For example, the company's deal with the Welsh national rugby team saw a series of large-scale advertisements incorporated into the aesthetic of the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, built around the slogan "Protect This House".
South Wales Argus
Celebrity Endorsement Deals
Under Armour also sponsors elite individual athletes, featuring them in blockbuster campaigns delivered online and offline to attract the attention of target consumer groups and drive relevant brand positioning.
These endorsement deals see celebrities star in campaign videos and photographs, wear the brand's apparel during sporting participation, as well as promote their collaboration with the brand across their social media accounts. Recent endorsers include actor and former wrestler Dwayne Johnson, swimmer Michael Phelps, and basketball legend Stephen Curry.
Although this expensive marketing method is sure to be out of the reach of most small businesses, scaled down influencer marketing can still represent an attractive alternative for entrepreneurs seeking to obtain similar promotional benefits.
Under Armour has also indulged in product placement campaigns, most notably in 1999 when it agreed to supply apparel for the Oliver Stone-directed NFL satire, Any Given Sunday. The movie, which starred Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx, featured the brand's activewear clothing in key scenes, driving both awareness and demand for the company's offerings.
This was the first of many embedded campaigns for Under Armour, who have since featured their logo and apparel highlights in numerous Hollywood productions, including Dodgeball, Superbad, The Social Network and Warrior.
This marketing strategy sees the brand able to reach broad audiences, increasing brand awareness and influencing powerful brand associations in the minds of viewers.
Among Under Armour's key team values is its objective to "Always Connect" with buyers. The brand aims to "live at the center (sic) of the consumer's life. All day, every day," claiming that its connection to the athletes it serves is what sets it apart. It fulfils this objective by executing targeted digital communications through an omnichannel approach, creating an engaging digital customer experience.
The company expertly adopts social media to consistently share relevant, exciting content, making sure it maintains a strong presence on all platforms where its target buyers invest their time and attention. Its online newsletter and digital newsroom also offer direct communications that work to maintain relationships with loyal buyers and contribute to valuable consumer retention.
Finally, Under Armour has made significant investments in mobile apps in recent years, with a view to engaging with existing and potential consumers on a daily basis. The acquisition of fitness apps MapMyRun, Endomondo, and MyFitnessPal has strengthened its digital ecosystem, and as a result of this strategic expansion, Under Armour now boasts the world's largest online fitness and wellness community.
Under Armour has found success in promoting its innovative products through a combination of marketing methods. It reinvests large sums in costly sporting partnerships and celebrity endorsement deals to influence heightened brand consideration among target consumers.
To balance this costly approach, Under Armour delivers inexpensive digital communications to share its values of equality, support and sustainability, while it also aims to continuously build on its UA Community to this end.
In 2014, Under Armour believed that it was missing out on an important, profitable consumer market that it had not yet been able to broach: female athletic apparel buyers. To address this issue, the company launched a highly successful campaign entitled 'I Will What I Want'.
The campaign's objectives were to modify the brand's image as overtly masculine, aggressive, and uninviting to women, and to earn the consideration of female athletes and sportswomen.
To initiate this change, it hired New York advertising agency Droga5 and, together, they delved deeper than ever before into the unique experiences of women in sport and fitness. As a result, it adjusted its messaging not only to make women feel included, but also empowered, valued and inspired.
Under Armour adopted two new brand ambassadors for the campaign: ballet dancer Misty Copeland, and model Gisele Bündchen. Campaign delivery methods included online video, TV ad spots and outdoor billboards, with the campaign's content focusing on the performance and training of female athletes. It pushed a message of overcoming adversity and disappointment to inspire viewers to drown out the noise around them and work to achieve their goals. To illustrate this, Bündchen's spot saw her train with a punching bag, while positive and negative online comments about the model's collaboration with the brand were illuminated across the gym. Copeland's video, meanwhile, saw her perform a routine to the background audio of a ballet school rejection letter being read aloud.
This moving content sparked many comments and conversations among female audiences, garnering significant media attention globally as a result. It affected positive change among its target viewers, improving female consumers' perception of Under Armour.; indeed, the brand noted a 900% increase in its association with the term 'stylish', and a 730% increase in its link to the word 'empowering' following the campaign's launch.
Ultimately, 'I Will What I Want' resulted in a 28% increase in sales of women's apparel, a 42% increase in traffic to the brand's website, 5bn worldwide media impressions, and several international advertising awards.
Under Armour has achieved what many companies aspire to; it has grown steadily from humble beginnings to an essential brand in its industry. It has offered fierce competition to longer-established athletic apparel giants, and carved out a portion of the market for itself.
Yet although its innovative products form the foundation for its success, Under Armour's marketing strategy has been one of the core factors behind its global expansion, continuing to support the brand's transition to new markets and new consumer groups. The company's ability to reach and connect with customers, maintain a valuable community among buyers and sporting enthusiasts, and align with consumer needs and expectations have all been key pillars in Under Armour's promotional achievement.
Budding businesses can, therefore, learn from the brand's example, and adopt a variety of marketing techniques that all serve their company's mission and values, creating authentic, long-term relationships with consumers, and effectively attracting the consideration of new buyers.
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