Sports apparel and accessories brand Under Armour made its first team sale in 1996 when 23 year old founder Kevin Plank struck a US $ 17,000 deal. Advertising was not an option for the start‐up housed in his grandmother's basement in Washington DC. In its third year, the brand had grown to sales of US $ 1.3 million by December, when it explored the option of a half page ad in ESPN magazine. The same year, the brand had been prominently displayed on the uniforms of football players in the movie Any Given Sunday, starring Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx. Funds were needed for almost everything, including skipped pay checks. Diverting the money, Plank bet $ 25,000 on the ad which ran for three weeks. The response was 8,000 calls, resulting in $ 800,000 worth of sales, recalled Plank, at the Cannes Lions this year. In a clear message for start‐ups, he said, “Don't be a professional fundraiser.”
A second ad followed. It resulted in a paltry 35 calls, because those looking for the brand had already been reached with the first set of insertions. A valuable lesson had been learnt.
The 'Underdog to Game Changer' story of Under Armour, and its partnership with celebrated independent Droga5, took centre stage at the International Festival of Creativity 2016 on 23 June. Joining him in the discussion was Droga5 creative chairman and founder David Droga, moderated by Ann'Christine Diaz, creativity editor of Advertising Age.
'Brand is everything'
“You're not a brand unless you have a point of view. Once you have one, you can't imagine how you lived without it. Brand is everything,” emphasised Plank, while reflecting on the journey of the brand that will clock $ 5bn in sales this year, up from $ 1bn in 2010.
He emphasised the need for the organisation to be completely aligned to the belief system. And it is this belief system that drew Droga5 to Under Armour, said Droga.
I Will What I Want campaign with Misty Copeland
The campaign, which won a Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions last year, allowed Under Armour to express its softer side and appeal to women, said Plank. Of the $ 5mn in sales expected this year, a fifth will be from women's products.
Advertising had always been important to the brand, noted the entrepreneur. In the early years, it was handled by an in‐house agency, with external partners roped in from time to time. Scaling up meant that one had to find experts, noted Plank. It was four or five years before a relationship would be cemented with Droga5.
“We're only as good as the clients we work with, what they allow us to do,” noted Droga. He revealed that the agency was assigned a one‐off brief by Under Armour but believed it could earn the mandate to do more. It resigned the Puma account for the smaller mandate, and is now the official agency on record across the brand's portfolio.
The worry for Under Armour today is not so much about competition, but about being prepared for a future where the Amazons and Googles of the world start selling their own T’shirts and shoes, noted Plank. He said, “The worst thing in life is apathy. We are still developing the company we want it to be.”
“And we're happy to be in the race with the best jockey in the world, that is David Droga,” he signed off.