Like many English Rugby fans (admittedly an armchair one) the other weekend, I watched on in horror as our national rugby team collapsed to suffer another glorious defeat. What struck me was how much hungrier, how much sharper and how much fitter the Welsh appeared to be. I did the usual Google and Wikipedia searches on the movers and shakers, but the more I read, the more I came across the name Kevin Plank. Played a similar sport, has the same commitment to finishing strong as the Welsh, and is a success. It piqued my interest.
As a former Captain of the University of Maryland American Football team, Plank clearly knows a thing or two about leading a winning team. So much so that since starting Under Armour in 1996, he has managed to take it from the front room of his grandmother’s house in Georgetown to now being a multi-billion dollar international sports apparel and equipment big hitter. How did he do it? We analyse the tactics he has used and whether they’ll help Under Armour be successful internationally:
1. More marathon than sprint.
While Nike and Adidas have long been established as fashion and footwear mainstays, Under Armour has remained resolutely focused on the athlete. No iconic products (think Adidas Popper Trackies from the 1990s) or activewear masquerading as hardcore gym bunny kit, Plank has deliberately targeted those true sporting tenets every athlete aspires to fulfil: performance and constant improvement.
It is clear that the approach is not about lucrative product placement or having customer’s chase the latest Kardashian/Rita Ora chic casual look – it is about the longer term perception and reputation of the Under Armour brand and leading the innovation charge (think of the link up with Lockheed Martin for an Olympic ice skating suit)
Plank has also capitalised on some canny technological investments (the Endomondo and MapMyFitness apps) allowing Under Armour to benefit from the network effects and branding power brought to the table by its now 130 million strong Connected Fitness community.
When considering the boom and bust nature of fashion, this is both a sensible and sustainable approach – proven product innovation supported and grown through viable and strategic technological platforms.
2. New balls, please.
Plank and his team have worked hard to distinguish Under Armour from their main competitors – incorporating a focus on the current core adult demographic, whilst also ensuring that they capture the imagination of the future customer – their core demographics’ kids.
This has meant ensuring that they have the broadest available range of kids offerings, mixing what has sold well in Men’s and Women’s wear and unashamedly offering it to the younger customer, but also pushing an extensive youth sports sponsorship programme which builds awareness, recognition and loyalty to the Brand.
Under Armour has also entered the professional endorsement game successfully, capturing teams and sportsmen such as Wimbledon winner Andy Murray, the Tottenham Hotspur football team and the second-youngest Masters Champion in Jordan Spieth.
This highly selective approach means making calculated bets on a smaller number of pro athletes, teams and events to ensure Under Armour is the only product advertised – which in turn avoids the brand dilution that occurs when other logos are present. In any case - and no matter what the sport - this prudent approach to sponsorship is paying off handsomely today.
3. Train hard, win easy.
What separates Under Armour from the rest of the field is that they aren’t afraid to reassess and re-launch along similar lines once they have analysed, improved and tested new approaches.
The choices of Lindsay Vonn and Misty Copeland to re-launch their women’s range in the late 2000s was typical of this – listening to the customer, applying the same ideals to design and innovation as the men’s range and choosing hugely popular but definitively sporty ambassadors helped to push women’s wear to 30% of total sales.
Under Armour also works the hard yards superbly. They’ve leveraged their back office and logistical systems to define, test and refine their system capabilities to ensure thorough cost, production and performance evaluations. This structured and iterative approach drives supply chain efficiencies and ensures on shelf availability whilst sustaining a low cost base – both key to successful operations.
It is this ability to objectively assess their performance, analyse their strengths and weaknesses, and to hold their hands up to some uncomfortable truths, which makes Under Armour so robust, relevant and commercially viable.
The great thing about Under Armour is that these tactics are easily transferable to new markets. With only 7% of total sales currently coming from the international market there is huge scope and opportunity to expand and to compete with the top tier of global sports retailing.
This has already begun in China and there has also been a huge push to enter Brazil to capitalise on the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the upcoming 2016 Olympic Games.
Under Armour has so far been fairly conservative in their approach, but it has paid off handsomely and is now in a position to become a key, truly global player.
Like his old coach at the University of Maryland advised, Plank works the plays and angles before committing. Perhaps the RFU and Stuart Lancaster should take note...