How social influencer marketing of a t-shirt propelled Under Armour to the US$1 billion league

How social influencer marketing of a t-shirt propelled Under Armour to the US$1 billion league

Under Armour remains a challenger brand in the UK sports apparel market but its track record of innovative marketing in the US propels it into the Innovation 50.

Founded in 1996 by former American football player Kevin Plank, the Under Armour story starts with a humble t-shirt. He was frustrated with how his cotton undershirt became moisture-soaked during training and games – hence the Under Armour name. So he created a moisture-wicking compression shirt and made 500 of them.

The power of word of mouth

Through a concerted effort at the grassroots, Plank got the new shirt into the hands of elite football players. Initially sceptical, especially as their Nike t-shirts seemed perfectly comfortable under their pads, this all changed once the players tried them. He gave them out free and gave an extra shirt ‘for the guy with the locker next to yours’ to help the word-of-mouth strategy build. Players loved them, as did their team mates, and it was the start.

The product was improved again and again by hanging out in the players’ locker room, asking for feedback, making adjustments and ensuring the shirts reflected the needs of the customer.

It was a huge help having Plank’s network of players and being based next to the Baltimore Ravens’ NFL stadium.

Eventually, two NFL teams placed orders. More teams followed.

But Plank had a vision for Under Armour to become a large sporting goods brand. That would only be achieved through some smart marketing.

Real-world social influencers

Smart, because there was no money. While other apparel brands had TV spots and sponsored the NFL, Under Armour’s only advantage was its closeness to the teams. So a relentless process of knocking on doors and convincing the players to try the shirt got underway.

It was a classic social influencer marketing model and it worked.

Players started to demand the shirts and, now and again, a TV camera would catch the Under Armour logo on the neck of a player.

As a non-licensee, the NFL approached Under Armour and suggested it sponsor the NFL Europe league. So Under Armour did.

Tactical error

When it was time to go beyond football players, the brand faced an obstacle; it was seen as a very masculine brand.

Its first step into the female apparel market, however, saw the brand wrong footed. Dubbed ‘shrink it and pink it’, the strategy was seen as patronising to women – a customer group it clearly didn’t understand.

So an ad campaign sought to address that, based on the insight that women athletes want the same as men.

Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, ballet dancer Misty Copeland and supermodel Giselle Bundchen starred in a campaign that showed women overcoming adversity.

Alongside improved women’s apparel, the campaign revived the brand’s expansion plans.

2020: A crisis year for the brand?

Under Armour ranks low in the UK on brand awareness and consideration – ranked 20 out of 27 sports brands on awareness, according to the YouGov Brand Index – well behind the likes of Nike and Adidas.

Sales in the US have also fallen this year, despite a significant investment in marketing with its ‘The Only Way is Through’ global platform. The campaign aims to realign the brand as the sports label that truly understands athletes as they push ‘through’ mental and pain barriers.

Will the campaign help Under Armour break through its own pain barrier? That remains to be seen. But the brand’s marketing track record means it remains comfortably in the Innovation 50.