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Under Armour

Outperforming Nike at the Rio Olympics

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It started with a simple plan to make a superior T-shirt. A shirt that provided compression and wicked perspiration off your skin rather than absorb it. A shirt that worked with your body to regulate temperature and enhance performance.

Under Armour’s mission is to make all athletes better through passion, design and the relentless pursuit of innovation.

Founded in 1996 by former University of Maryland football player Kevin Plank, Under Armour is driven by a passion for high performance clothing – engineered to keep athletes cool, dry and light throughout the course of a game, practice or workout. The technology behind Under Armour’s diverse product assortment for men, women and youth is complex, but the program for reaping the benefits is simple: wear HeatGear when it’s hot, ColdGear when it’s cold, and AllSeasonGear between the extremes.

Born out of sweat

In 1996, 23-year-old Plank, turned an idea born on the football field into a new industry that changed the way athletes dress forever. Back in his playing days, Plank hated having to change his sweat-soaked cotton T-shirts over and over again during two-a-days. Knowing that there simply had to be something better, he set out to create a solution.

Plank named his new company Under Armour, and after extensive research on the athletic benefits of synthetic fabrics, he designed the first Under Armour HeatGear T-shirt, which he named the #0037. Engineered with moisture-wicking performance fibers, the shirt helps keep athletes cool, dry, and light in the most brutally hot conditions.

Working from his grandmother’s basement in Washington DC’s Georgetown neighborhood, he traveled up and down the East Coast selling his revolutionary new product out of the trunk of his car. By the end of 1996, Plank made his first team sale, and Under Armour generated $17,000 in sales.

In 1997, Under Armour introduced the now-famous ColdGear fabric, which keeps athletes warm, dry, and light in cold conditions, and then the AllSeasonGear line, which keeps athletes comfortable between the extremes.

By the end of 1998, Under Armour outgrew grandma’s basement and moved to an all-new headquarters and warehouse in Baltimore.

In 1999, Under Armour played a supporting role in one of the year’s most-talked about movies. Plank and his team signed on to supply product for the Oliver Stone film Any Given Sunday starring Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx. In the film, the football team wears Under Armour apparel and accessories in key scenes.

Realizing the incredible opportunity to leverage the exposure from Any Given Sunday, Plank bet big and bought his first print ad in ESPN the Magazine. A risk at the time, the move paid off, generating awareness and a $750,000 increase in sales. For the first time since starting Under Armour, Plank officially put himself on the payroll.

Growing by word of mouth

In 2002, to support its continued growth, the Brand moved its global headquarters to an old soap factory in the Tide Point section of south Baltimore located on the historic Inner Harbor.

With word of mouth growing every day, the Brand bet big again and launched its first-ever TV campaign. In 2003, the legendary Protect this House TV commercial featured former University of Maryland football standout Eric “Big E” Ogbogu and a group of young athletes bringing the Brand’s voice and overwhelming passion to life in a way no one had ever seen before. Protect This House became a rallying cry for athletes everywhere, it established the Brand as the authentic voice for the next generation, and it officially made Under Armour a household name.

Under Armour officially launched its women’s line, UA Women, in 2003. In 2004, the brand introduced lines specifically for boys’ and girls’ and Outdoor athletes. Under Armour Golf was introduced in 2005, and, in the same year, Under Armour signed its first all-school deal with Plank’s alma mater, the University of Maryland.

On November 18, 2005 Under Armour went public and became the first U.S.-based initial public offering in five years to double on its first day of trading.

Less than 10 years after its launch, Under Armour ended the year with $281 million in revenue.

Head to toe sportswear

In 2006, Under Armour set its sights on dressing the athlete from head to toe.

A new campaign, Click-Clack launched the brand into the footwear business through the introduction of its first line of football cleats and the Brand captured a 23% share of the market in just the first year. On the heels of this enormous success, the Brand expanded its cleat business to include baseball, softball and lacrosse cleats.

In 2008, after nearly 12 years of providing technically advanced performance accessories and apparel, and less than two years removed from its foray into cleated footwear, Under Armour revealed its highly anticipated line of performance trainers marking its official entry into the athletic footwear market.

This period also marks the beginning of key additions to Under Armour’s elite roster of world-class athletes, including future NFL Hall-of-Famer Ray Lewis, gold medal skier Lindsey Vonn, MMA World Champion Georges St-Pierre, and Brandon Jennings, the first US basketball player to go straight from high school to a European professional league. But that was just the beginning. By the end of 2010, the Brand added the most accomplished Olympian of all-time and Baltimore native Michael Phelps, two-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady, and a young tennis phenom named Sloane Stephens.

In the midst of launching new product lines and new athlete partnerships, Under Armour also opened its new European headquarters in the old Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam and built its first branded-retail store in Annapolis, MD.

In 2010, on the biggest stage in college football field, the Under Armour sponsored Auburn Tigers won the 2010 BCS Championship game, led by future Under Armour athlete and NFL Rookie of the year Cam Newton.

2010 ended with a truly incredible financial milestone as Under Armour surpassed $1 billion in annual revenue almost quadrupling revenues in a five-year period.

Will power

Over the years, Under Armour has made significant strides in establishing a strong presence outside of the US. Through on-field partnerships with elite professional teams and players, the Brand gained enormous traction with athletes in Japan, Europe, Canada, and Latin America. The international footprint skyrocketed in 2011 when Under Armour opened its first-ever brand store in China and became the official technical partner to Tottenham Hotspur of the Barclays Premier League. The Tottenham Hotspur partnership is Under Armour’s largest individual team deal to date.

2011 is the same year the Brand ended a long-running feud with one of its biggest enemies: cotton. After years of declaring, “Cotton is the Enemy,” Under Armour further cemented its reputation for relentless innovation by developing Charged Cotton, a line of cotton apparel that dries fast and performs. From Charged Cotton came Charged Cotton Storm, which gives athletes the same quick-drying cotton with revolutionary water-resistant technology.

In 2012 and 2013 two key Under Armour athletes celebrated monumental accomplishments. In the summer of 2012, on sports biggest international stage, Michael Phelps cemented his legacy as the most decorated Olympian off all time by winning seven medals and increasing his medal total to 22 including 18 gold medal performances. In January of 2013, Ray Lewis capped off his career as one of the game’s best ever-defensive players by bringing home the second Super Bowl ring for the Baltimore Ravens.

17 years after that first moisture-wicking T-shirt, Under Armour innovation took center stage once again with the launch of all-new Armour39, the first-ever performance monitoring system that measures what matters most to an athlete: your WILLpower.

The Brand’s mission is to make all athletes better through passion, design, and the relentless pursuit of innovation. Its commitment to that mission has led to countless game-changing products that give athletes an advantage.

In college, Kevin Plank had an idea to help football players get better. Today, with revenue approaching $2 Billion, the Brand is widely recognized as a global leader in performance footwear, apparel, and accessories, and its commitment to making all athletes better drives its never-ending dedication to building tomorrow’s next great innovation.

Changing the game in Rio

Under Armor’s 90-second long “Rule Yourself” advertising starring the Team USA Women’s Gymnastics is athletic ad perfection. It’s on the verge of 3 million views and deserves every single one of them. It makes pudgy, middle-age men want to do some gymnastics. And while it’s not the 5.6 million views of Under Armor’s companion Michael Phelps ad, it’s the superior spot—making a successful argument in 90 seconds that even P&G’s Olympic “Like a Girl” campaign could appreciate.

It would be easy to congratulate Under Armor for rising so fast since its 1996 founding to become a sponsor of something as global as the Olympics. UA, however, is not a Rio Games official brand, but Nike is. In the past Nike has successfully elbowed its way into events like the Olympics despite official competing sponsors, like Adidas. It has become the kings of “ambush marketing”.

The practice is now a codified marketing strategy for global sporting events, with ambush marketing prevalent in nearly every event: the 2010 World Cup (Nike ambush Adidas) to London 2012 (Beats ambush Panasonic, Nike ambush everyone) to Euro 2016 (Nike beat Adidas again). One thing obviously in common with all of those events is Nike as the ambusher. But now in Rio, Nike has become the ambushee.

Out-thinking Nike

How is Under Armor out-ambushing Nike? Essentially by doing everything Nike did to every other athletic brand for 20 years until about 2005.

It currently uses “Rule Yourself” but “Fake It ’Til You Make It” should be Under Armor’s motto. The brand itself traces its big break to Hollywood, when filmmakers put UA logos on the jerseys and gear of athletes in hit football movies Any Given Sunday (1999) and The Replacements (2000). “The object was authenticity, and Under Armour delivered,” the brand says. The brand’s huge push in 2003 built around “Protect This House” was no “Just Do It” but it got the job done. Under Armour was slowly going from that “weird upside-down U’s” logo to that laughable upstart brand that actually thinks it can challenge Nike. Of course, today Nike is the only athletic brand bigger in the US than Under Armour.

In 2007, working under the slogan “Click Clack,” UA had an IPO and its first retail experience. Under Armour was signing up random teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and damaged star athletes like Ray Lewis. And from the beginning, Under Armour recognized female athletes were an underserved market; at 10 years old, its women’s product sales were by far outpacing its men’s sales. The brand owed some of this success to tapping into female designers,   years before and signing up under-the-radar female stars from the women’s US soccer and Olympic softball teams. By 2016, Nike maintained a lead in the headspace of the American consumer, but not much.

Under Armour’s recent ambush of Nike at the 2016 Rio Games is a page from Nike’s playbook. But it’s also thanks to loosening International Olympic Committee rules, especially Rule 40. Attention to Rule 40 started at the 2012 London Games, and the rule governing what ads can and cannot be broadcast during the Olympics has expanded since. Ironically, allowing Under Armour easier access to ambush Nike, came thanks to decades of Nike’s successful Olympic ambushing of other brands.

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