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Under Armour SVP: Co. still embraces underdog role

October 4th, 2012 No comments

In the late ‘90s, when Under Armour was brand new and not making much money, company founder and CEO Kevin Plank used a connection to outfit with his apparel the stars and extras of the film “Any Given Sunday.”

The exposure once the film, which starred Jamie Foxx and Al Pacino and told the story of a fictional pro football franchise, hit the big screen would be priceless. There was a problem, though.

“Unless they knew what it was beforehand, people were going to think that our logo was a movie prop,” said Steve Battista, senior vice president, brand creative, for Baltimore-based Under Armour.

The solution: Under Armour would place an ad in an upcoming issue of another fledgling venture, ESPN The Magazine. But that created another problem: there was no way to pay for it.

To fix that, all 15 Under Armour employees agreed to give up two paychecks so Plank could afford the $30,000 vertical ad that covered only one-third of one page. Among the workers was a seamstress who lived in a tent with her husband because they couldn’t afford a house.

The ad made it to print, “Any Given Sunday” scored big at the box office and Under Armour took a giant leap forward.

Battista, one of the first 20 people hired at Under Armour, told that story as part of his presentation Thursday morning at the Fall Forum at Millsaps College’s Else School of Management.

Under Armour has moved past scraping together capital to market itself. In 2011, the company did $1.5 billion in sales while employing 5,000 people worldwide, and has become as recognizable as Nike, the sports apparel industry’s alpha dog.

Reaching that point required a ton of work and a lot of luck, Battista said. Under Armour had to build its brand, telling a good story in the process. An example of that is the company’s first marketing slogan that stuck: “We Must Protect This House.”

Battista, who developed the slogan and the campaign built around it, said each perfectly reflected the attitude of the company in the early 2000s. “We knew the big guys were going to come after us,” he told the crowd at the Leggett Special Events Center. “The equipment managers at the schools we worked with, our retailers, everybody told us that our competitors were going to start selling their stuff at a loss so they could get rid of us. They could afford to do that, and we knew it.”

Under Armour knew it had to counter, so its way of introducing itself to consumers who defaulted to Nike or Adidas for sportswear was to make a statement that, even if it wasn’t intentional, doubled as a promise.

“We had a brand and we had a story to tell,” Battista said.

As it moves to cut into Nike’s share of the global marketplace – the company this year opened its first store in China — the underdog role is one Under Armour still embraces. “We’re still a bootstrap company,” Battista said. “We love for our employees, especially the rookies, to come in and show us they can get after it, that they’ll fight. That’s what we’re all about.”

There’s no better personification of that, Battista said, than the seamstress who gave up money she and her husband desperately needed so Under Armour could start the process of becoming relevant as a brand. She still works at Under Armour.

“But now she has a big, nice house with a pool,” Battista said.