It is great to start the day with an early morning run, wearing Under Armour. The relatively young (it was founded only twenty years ago in 1996) American sports apparel, shoes and accessories company helped me to lose 10 kilos in a relatively short period of time. Could other sports brands have had a similar impact? The one word answer is NO! But why? And what did my experience with Under Armour teach me about becoming a more fulfilled and better person in a world that is increasingly characterized by uncertainty and complexity.
The slightly longer to the above question about the impact of Under Armour on my personal fitness is that no other sports brand provides the opportunity to make a statement about who I am and what I stand for. Under Armour inspired me and, by doing so, allowed me to go beyond my perceived limitations and to get into better and healthier shape.
My co-author Mark Fenwick and I have explained this in more detail elsewhere, but the main reason why I love Under Armour so much is that it is a real example of a 21st century company. What this means (and how this enables Under Armour to make athletes better and help me lose weight) becomes clear when we revisit the two core elements of any company, namely the product and the culture.
The primary focus of Under Armour is on delivering products that constantly innovate in functionality and connectivity. Under Armour appears to understand this very well. The full-body Recharge Energy Suit (which helps muscles recover from fatigue after training), UA Coreshorts (which supports the core of the body and boosts performance), charged and storm cotton (designed to keep athletes dry and comfortable), are just some examples of genuine product innovation.
Unsurprisingly, Under Armour, as a 21st century company, also offers a family of accompanying apps, such as Record, MyFitnessPal, MapMyFitness and Endomondo. The company has been active and hugely successful in creating a connected and complete fitness experience, which is currently enjoyed by more than 160 million registered and active users. Since these apps give Under Armour access to valuable “big data” on workouts, nutrition habits and sleep, the company has a tremendous opportunity to improve and accelerate its capacity for sustained innovation.
What is important here is that the company has been able to build a unique “crowd culture” and “consumer culture” around its products and apps via its social media strategy.
Certainly, these apps help me stay motivated, track my workouts and help me to attain my personal fitness goals, but it would be wrong to assume that Under Armour only inspires me with its capacity to deliver innovation in its product line-up and connected fitness apps. What is important here is that the company has been able to build a unique “crowd culture” and “consumer culture” around its products and apps via its social media strategy. These cultures of authenticity and personalized expression clearly add to my user experience and encourages me to go out for a run and “just do it” everyday irrespective of the weather.
Consider as an example of its strong “crowd culture” the Gisele Bündchen film. In its effort to break through established gender norms, Under Armour showed that there is simply more to being a supermodel than “acting pretty”. It worked. Immediately after announcing the partnership with the Former Victoria Secret’s model, the crowd started to react on social media. Even though the crowd was cynical, curious, puzzled and amazed, as shown in the film in which Bündchen is working out while real-time social media commentary was streaming in, they were also very positive, particularly driving sales among women.
Moreover, Under Armour has also targeted young athletes who — at the time they initially partner with the firm — are still viewed as underdogs in their area of sports. Jordan Spieth, for example, a young American golfer was selected to “help” build the now prospering golf division. In the advertisement materials, Under Armour did not use Spieth’s “face” as just a young and upcoming golfer, but portrayed him as an athlete who through continuous training and repeatedly practicing his golf swing had been able to rise to global prominence.
Under Armour also contracted Stephen Curry, a relatively less well-known figure (at least initially) from the NBA, as one of the key persons of their marketing campaign because of his inspirational personal story. This approach created a distinct product identity and a community amongst users, but it also communicated an aspirational message of personal identity and self-improvement that is particularly appealing to the consumers of today (including myself).
Under Armour’s “corporate culture” (or better: “un-corporate and personalized” culture) is perhaps the most important aspect of the company in terms of consumer experience, satisfaction, loyalty and sustained commitment to the brand.
And there is one other consideration that really matters (if you still believe that Under Armour doesn’t really distinguish itself from its better competitors). Under Armour’s “corporate culture” (or better: “un-corporate and personalized” culture) is perhaps the most important aspect of the company in terms of consumer experience, satisfaction, loyalty and sustained commitment to the brand. Evidence of this can be found in Under Armour’s recent release (June 2016) of the Curry Two basketball shoes. Social media was quick and clear in its judgment (particularly regarding the UA Curry Two Low). According to many Tweets, the shoes were so boring that only middle-aged men, nurses or “mall-walkers” would wear them. Jimmy Fallon also made it very clear during his Tonight Show that the new shoes weren’t very fashionable: “[They] look like the shoes my dad would wear to mow the lawn. They should come with grass stains on the bottom”.
If Under Armour was a traditional corporate company, the response would be “panic”, “retreat”, “mask” or “deny”. Under Armour, however, followed their usual unconventional, un-corporate approach by transforming the emotion on social media into something really exciting. Under Armour’s founder and CEO, Kevin Plank, who was a former special teams captain for the University of Maryland football team), was ecstatic about the online response: “I thought oh my gosh, after 20 years in business doing this, people finally care,” He added: “That is everything you’re trying to do in marketing… the worst thing in life is apathy; when no one cares if you show up or not“. The result? The new shoes have become a huge commercial success and the most popular sizes are already sold out on Under Armour’s website.
This is not at all surprising. It is clear that the new Curry sneakers are not just a product, which was marketed through corporate branding. Rather, Under Armour and Stephen Curry (their story, their narrative, their authenticity) have become a constitutive element of the product itself that generate sales and build a community of “users” that really matters to those — like myself — who have embraced the company.
This approach not only creates a distinct product identity, but it also creates a “personalized” buzz, drives a “personalized” experience of a product, garners a super-engaged “personalized” community and communicates an aspirational message of self-improvement of body and mind that is particularly appealing to me and others. The combination of product innovation and culture has proven to be vital in improving people’s lives and quality of life. At least, that has been my experience. Hopefully, the same can apply to you. So, thank you Under Armour!