Thursday
Feb212013

Q&A: How Under Armour, NFL Combine Dedication, Innovation, Activation

By Barry Janoff

February 21, 2013: Last week, Under Armour launched what it called the biggest marketing campaign in company history. It showcases such young Under Armour endorsers as NL Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper, Top 20 ranked women's tennis star Sloane Stephens, world welterweight champion Canelo Alvarez, NBA standout Kemba Walker and others.

Endorsers also include Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Michael Phelps, Lindsey Vonn, Arian Foster, Buster Posey, Brandon Jennings, Raymond Felton, DeAndre Jordan, Torrey Smith, Gina Carano and Georges St-Pierre.

The campaign, "I Will: Innovation," being overseen in-house, supports not only the brand's newest training and workout apparel and shoes, but also proclaims the launch of Armour 39, a monitoring system worn around the chest that tracks, measures and analyzes such factors as heart rate, speed, distance and overall workout intensity. It then crunches the numbers, sends the results to an Armour 39 watch or a mobile device loaded with a compatible app and then, according to Under Armour, "gives you the one intangible that no athlete or trainer has ever been able to see: your 'Willpower.' A single score that pinpoints exactly how hard you've worked during a training session."

Armour 39 will be used at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine, being held in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis Feb. 23-26, where an invitation-only group of 300-350 of the top draft prospects will work out for and be tested and interviewed by coaches and scouts from every NFL team.

Under Armour has been the presenting sponsor of the Scouting Combine since 2009, which includes an exclusivity clause under which all participating players wear Under Armour shirts, shorts and socks. (Players can wear cleats from any of the NFL's marketing partners, including Nike, adidas and Under Armour.)

Last year, Under Armour launched a line of NFL Scouting Combine apparel for consumers. That line, along with all other Under Armour products, are front-and-center at the company's new flagship store, located in the downtown section of Baltimore, near the company's headquarters and "campus."

Among other activations, Under Armour has deals with numerous college sports programs, is title sponsor of the Under Armour All-Star Game featuring the nation's top senior prep players and has naming rights to the training facility for the Super Bowl XLVII champion Baltimore Ravens, the under Armour Performance Center, located in Owings Mills, Md.

For the full year 2012, Under Armour, formed in 1996 by Kevin Plank, reported that net revenues increased 25% to $1.84 billion compared with $1.47 billion in the prior year, with $1.38 billion coming from apparel.

By comparison, Nike reported some $25 billion last year.

On Thursday (Feb. 21), Under Armour took Nike to court, "based on [Nike's] infringement of Under Armour's federally registered 'I Will' trademark" in recent marketing efforts. "We will defend ourselves whenever necessary to protect what we've worked so hard to build. We will not allow a competitor to blatantly infringe upon our established trademark rights," Under Armour said in a statement.

NYSportsJournalism spoke with Steve Battista, svp-brand for Under Armour, about the Scouting Combine, the alliance with the NFL and production and marketing strategies that have helped Under Armour stay true to the company's work ethic: Make all athletes better.

NYSportsJournalism.com: The competition in the categories of fitness, workout and training has become very intense. What do you see as Under Armour's strong points in differentiating your marketing message and resonating with consumers?

Steve Battista: We have a big vision. And that starts at the top with Kevin Plank. He is always driving us to think bigger. In our new creative, we are thinking bigger about the innovations we are bringing to market today as well as the innovations we want to bring to market tomorrow. If there is one message, it is 'We are here to make you better.' That is our job, and we take it seriously. We started this 17 years ago with our first T-shirt, which kept people cool, dry and light. But there is also a bigger vision and a bigger machine at work here. We want to continue to change things for athletes and improve how they perform.

NYSJ: It wasn't too long ago when the NFL Scouting Combine was intensely followed only by those within the NFL. Now, it has become a cottage industry with marketing support, network coverage, some 800 media credentials issued and a plethora of fans following it and using social media to converse about it. How important has it become for Under Armour, which is the presenting sponsor of the event?

SB: This is our time of year to own football. And by that I mean, while we consider the entire NFL season to be important, this is all about the training, the intense preparations to get ready for the season. It's not the most glamorous time of the year; it is about the hard work and the time players put in that makes their year. The Combine is the most important job interview these athletes will ever go on. We are proud to be helping these athletes and to be the brand that they turn to. And we are proud of our role as a marketing partner with the NFL at the Combine and then through the season.

"This is our time of year to own football. The entire NFL season is important, but this is all about the training, the intense preparations to get ready for the season."

NYSJ: Would you like to see the Scouting Combine held in New York, Chicago or another location that would afford it more access to fans and marketers?

SB: The Scouting Combine is held in Indianapolis for a reason. It is clandestine for a reason. It is very serious work and there are very serious interviews and tests going on. So there is a purpose for it being closed off to the general public. At the same time, it has great content and makes for great viewing. So if we, as a marketing partner, help to display some of the athleticism of the players and some of the innovations we have launched there over the years, we are doing our part.

NYSJ: We are only weeks past the Super Bowl and the end of the last season, so is it too early from a marketing standpoint to already be concentrating on the next NFL season?

SB: When we began to make an extensive play into professional football with marketing, and not just what was being worn on the uniforms, was back when we launched cleats. That time, from the Combine through the NFL Draft, was the time we were telling people that we were coming out with a new type of football cleat. The campaign was 'Click. Clack.' People within football circles knew that the cleats were coming, but the [2006] Combine was where they were introduced to the public.

NYSJ: What has been strategically important about the Scouting Combine for Under Armour?

SB: Vernon Davis and A.J. Hawk wore the new cleats in 2006. At that Combine, that really brought [the cleats] to a certain level of notoriety among football fans and casual fans. They got national attention, as did Under Armour's growing alliance with the NFL. So, since then, it has become our time of year. We have tested gear and equipment at the Combine and then brought it to consumers, such as Armour 39. When we became the official partner of the Scouting Combine in 2009, that really helped to solidify us with the NFL in the eyes of fans. In 2011, we aligned with guys like Julio Jones, who broke all sorts of records at the Combine, and Cam Newton, especially doing what he did at the Combine. He didn't have to be there, but he wanted to be there to show that he was a competitor and show NFL coaches and scouts that he was ready to play.

NYSJ: How would you describe the group of athletes that Under Armour has on its endorsement roster?

SB: Authentic. It may sound like a cliche, but the athletes with whom we work really put the long hours and hard work in to help them to succeed. They embrace the idea that if you work hard and put in the hours to get better during training sessions and workouts, when it's early in the morning or late at night and no one else is around, they can improve their  skills.

NYSJ: How is this being presented to consumers in the new marketing campaign?

SB: If you look at the new 'I Will' [anthem] spot, you'll see Canelo Alvarez in the gym in his hometown in Mexico where he worked out as a kid and still works out. It is having that juxtaposition of him wearing the new Armour 39 innovation while he's running through the villages outside of Guadalajara doing his roadwork. Or to bring Bryce Harper back to Las Vegas High School where he attended. Not just put him through the paces to make a great looking picture, but have him actually go into the gym where he still works out at 5:30 AM, and then have him out on the field with his brother. It's authentic. (See the Bryce Harper 'I Will' commercial here.) That's what we speak about. That's who we are.

NYSJ: What has been the early consumer reaction to the new "I Will" campaign? Anyone request that the company's iconic 'Protect This House' tagline be brought back?

SB: 'Protect This House' is our declaration of independence. It's not going anywhere. It's still here on the Under Armour Campus [the company's growing headquarters and surrounding facilities]. You'll see it in stadiums, around some of out team sports. But 'I Will' is definitely the global answer to 'Protect This House.' it speaks to men and women, and it translates to any language.

"'Protect This House' is our declaration of independence. It's not going anywhere. But 'I Will' is definitely the global answer to 'Protect This House.'"

NYSJ: How does the new flagship store in Baltimore fit into the company's strategy?

SB: It's a great fit for us. The store looks good. Maybe a bit too refined for what we are used to, but in retail that seems to work. The focus is not just men's apparel, but also women and kids, which are growing categories for us. It has the biggest collection of footwear you will find anywhere. It will allow us to do a lot of things to extend our brand to the public.

NYSJ: What are some of the activations being planned at the store?

SB: When you have 8,000 square feet, you can tell big, bold stories. We can bring in athletes and we can have a lot of no-holds-barred activations. Torrey Smith [wide receiver for the Baltimore Ravens] was there on opening day. It's right downtown, so Michael Phelps [who lives in Baltimore] has come in, members of the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens. We can get Bryce Harper in there when the [Washington] Nationals are in town, and get any of our athlete [spokespersons] into the store if they are in the area and their schedule permits it.

NYSJ: Are you jumping on the bandwagon for the Ravens to repeat as Super Bowl champs?

SB: That would be great. It's amazing what they accomplished. The Ravens work out at the Under Armour Performance Center and I think it's all due to that. [Laughs.]

Editor's Note: Under Armour's campaign is being anchored by a 60-second spot, "I Will: Innovation," but the company has also broken out individual spots for Armour 39 (with Bryce Harper, Canelo Alvarez, Georges St-Pierre and Kemba Walker) as well as for each of the athletes who appear in the anthem spot, including: Bryce Harper ("I don't have any gears. I play one way. That's all I've ever known."), Sloane Stephens ("You fight and fight. Get every ball back. Run every ball down. And never, ever doubt.") and Canelo Alvarez ("In my country, when you become a national hero, they write your name in all capital letters.").

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