UA CEO and founder Kevin Plank laid the groundwork for success from the very start. Much in the mold of Nike’s Phil Knight, Blank built a word-of-mouth strategy by simply telling rising athletes about cool new gear that stayed dry.
In an article in the Harvard Business Review (May 2012), instead of saying, “do me a favor and wear this shirt,” Plank would say, “I have this neat product, and this cool company I’m working with—you should check it out.” If they showed interest, he’d send them product and ask them to give one to a locker mate. With the pitch in hand, he networked like crazy because he had friends inside the locker rooms where cool products matter; and, he had a story to tell.
These connections—and the uniqueness of the product—paid off in 1997 when an equipment manager friend of Plank’s asked for 150 shirts to put on each Miami Dolphin. Reluctantly, Plank told the man there was no way he could give away that much product and declined the offer. A day later, the Dolphin guy called back and agreed to buy the shirts, and, the rest as they say, is history.
Plank has become skilled at deciding how to dole out the endorsement money. His first paid endorser was Barry Bonds, who loved the product. But, Bonds’ manager demanded big-time cash. All Plank could pay was $5,000 cash and an equal amount in product. Bonds' manager balked. Plank explained his company was a start-up and couldn't pay big fees. But, he did promise if UA ever got there, Bonds would be rewarded appropriately. Bonds insisted his manager accept.
Under Armour is an authentic brand that was a product of competition. Plank himself was an athlete. Moreover, he thinks like an athlete, and he incorporated this unique positioning into the very first ad when he put unknown but physically imposing Eric Ogbogu (a teammate in college) in UA gear and had him launch the anthem: “We must protect this house!” While Ogbogu was a NFL veteran, he is far better known as the Under Armour guy than as a one of 800 NFL players who remain virtually unrecognizable.
Plank has assembled a team that is expert at understanding the art of the deal, the way to leverage media, and an eye for identifying promising opportunities.
Consider that in the 2nd calendar quarter of 2015, Under Armour witnessed unprecedented success in clutter-breaking endorsers: Stephen Curry led the Golden State Warriors to a world championship; PGA Tour pro Jordan Spieth won the Masters and U.S. Open; and the American Ballet chose its first-ever African American female principal dancer, Misty Copeland, all with breakout accomplishments. Check out this engaging story:
The HBR article closed with this, a fitting testament: A successful endorsement should facilitate a conversation between the brand and the athlete and between the athlete and the consumer.