Bolder Thinking Blog

How Under Armour lost its cool: A cultural branding perspective

February 5th, 2020 | Behice Ilhan

Has Under Armour lost its edge? A recent New York Times (NYT) article has addressed this seemingly new, but indeed long-time-coming story about the brand. Has Under Armour lost its edge? Yes. But, more importantly, Under Armour has lost its cool.

As a cultural brand strategist, I am more interested in the questions: “Did Under Armour even have an edge to lose?” “Why did it lose its cool?” “What are the possible branding strategies that can help Under Armour going forward?” In this post, I build on The New York Times article and adopt a cultural branding perspective to answer the above questions in light of the evolving market and competitive dynamics. Let’s get started!

Definition of the Business

What is Under Armour? Is it a sports apparel company? Is it an activewear company? Is it a footwear or sportswear brand? Is it a “maker of high-tech gear?” Those are all terms used in the NYT article and in the LinkedIn comments section to describe Under Armour’s’ business. This is one of the main problems that Under Armour needs to address. The interconnectedness of technology and the connected consumers challenge the ways brands and companies define their business. Apple is not a personal computer company. Amazon is not an ecommerce company. Nike is not a sports apparel company. And neither is Under Armour. The consumer experiences and expectations of Under Armour are not solely molded by the experiences they had or will have with the apparel or sports companies.; Consumers’ experiences are shaped and set by their interactions with all the products and service providers they engage with across technology, retail, CPG, travel, ecommerce, etc. (eg same-day shipping, seamless car sharing, one-click ordering, and mobile connections). Consumers expect seamless, frictionless, transparent, speedy, personalized, mobile and voice-activated consumer experiences that they have been receiving from other products and/or services in other verticals. Assessing Under Armour’s performance or demise of it only within the scope of the apparel or sportswear industry will fall short and prevent us from exploring the possibilities and opportunities that lie ahead of the brand.

Comperemedia Recommends: Redefine the business
We highly recommend Under Armour reconsider its existing definition as a “sports apparel” business and explore a broader role in the wider and transforming ecosystem at the intersection of lifestyle, technology, and consumer culture. Under Armour would benefit from learning, understanding, and adapting the best practices from these seemingly unrelated but influential verticals. Redefining the business in this light will help Under Armour to align with the evolving consumer culture and better contextualize its technology acquisitions.

Fluid Categories

The NYT article emphasizes that “it is all about the athleisure trend,” but the contemporary dynamics of the marketplace are more complex than the increasing popularity of this particular category. Product and service categories are converging to change and changing to converge as they create fluid categories with overlapping, shifting, indefinite, and intentionally ambiguous boundaries. Luxury, street, and athletic wear are fusing into each other and forming new taste regimes. The luxury clothing category is transforming and becoming more accessible as brands like Louis Vuitton make collaborations with street-cool brands like Off-White. On the other hand, streetwear brands like A Bathing Ape and Supreme, channeling various underground style currents, are claiming luxury positioning. Over the past 20 years, Supreme has transitioned from “the skateboarding brand” to a $1 billion luxury streetwear brand. We’re seeing the convergence of streetwear and athleisure clothing lead to more minimalistic and masculine aesthetics based on gender fluidity.

Comperemedia Recommends: Revamped competitive analysis and intelligence
In the new market dynamics, it is essential for Under Armour to have a more layered and interdependent understanding of competition and competitive forces impacting its business. In the category, the premium positioning that Nike and Under Armour used to own are now occupied by luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, Dior, Balenciaga, and McQueen. The convergence made the category more attractive for these luxury brands as they introduce high-end lifestyle athletic apparel like sneakers, tracksuits, joggers, and bomber jackets. Under Armour should consider this fluidity as they are crafting positioning, competitive, and innovation strategies. The change is at the intersection of the popularization of the sneaker culture, mainstreaming and premiumization of streetwear, accessibility of luxury consumption, and the evolving luxury consumer with younger and international segments. Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour are not the only cool kids in the block.

Duopolistic Rivalry

When Under Armour took over Adidas in 2015, it collapsed the duopolistic rival competition between Nike and Adidas. That has led to a fragmentation in the category. UnderArmour was slow to establish a similar rivalry or a “frenemies” status with Nike. The disintegration of the polarization between the two major players in the category left enough “oxygen” – market share, resources, consumer attention, investment interest – in the category for existing brands with smaller market share like Puma and Reebok to grow, nostalgic brands like Champion and FILA to get resuscitated, and DTC brands like AllBird, Innov8, and Everlane to claim market share in the category.

Comperemedia Recommends: Dancing with the enemy
Being “frenemies” does not necessarily hurt the brands involved, but rather polarized rivalries control the fragmentation in the category and prevent third-party brands from breaking into the top spot. For instance, a rather passive Adidas – that didn’t value this polarization – ceded its Nike challenger status to aggressive newcomer Under Armour, who attacked Nike head-on in 2015. The leveraging of interbrand dynamics may be important to reinforce positioning and ranking in the category, particularly in duopolistic market structures.

Given the fluidity and fragmentation of the categories, it is more difficult to establish a polarized duopolistic rivalry at the moment, but we still recommend Under Armour adopt more coordinated and collaborative competitive strategies to unlock the synergistic power of rivalries. This battle requires some dancing skills.

Conventional Branding vs. Cultural Branding

Under Armour is planning to tell more of its brand story in 2020. The newly-launched global campaign, “The Only Way Is Through,” showcases the endurance and will power of athletes, mimicking a similar narrative arc of its previous campaign with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The 90-sec spot shows the training montages of athletes including Michael Phelps, Stephen Curry, Tom Brady, and Kelley O’Hara. As repeated in the NYT article, Under Armour focuses on the brand essence as the consistent core of their branding efforts. Brian Boring, VP of Global Brand Creative at Under Armour, says: “It’s back to what the brand essence really is: We used to use big, powerful, visceral messaging that would connect emotionally…For this campaign, it was important to bring this in-house and harvest the soul of the brand.” This common and mainstream branding approach seeks to consistently evoke the brand essence at every activity that carries the brand mark and delivers it over time. It is difficult to build brands that act as cultural, historical, and social agents of their times with these conventional branding strategies. Stewarding a consistent brand DNA, soul, or brand essence does not let brands address the contemporary cultural fault lines in the society.

Iconic brands are built via cultural branding strategies (Douglas Holt, How Brands Become Icons). Cultural brand management tries to build a cultural prism into the product that will help consumers to address their anxieties and desires in that particular historical moment. The prominent and colossal competitors in the lifestyle sports apparel category are leveraging cultural branding strategies rather than traditional approaches. Nike, for example, focuses on building its brand based on a deep understanding of cultural dynamics and cultural shifts. As evident in Nike’s recent “Believe in Something” and “Dream Crazier” campaigns, cultural branding requires a deep and layered grasp of knowledge on national, community, art subcultures, and popular culture levels and a solid comprehension of the cultural seismic shifts that shape gender, ethnicity, and class in a particular historical period. Nike’s branding efforts are driven by the understanding that brands are not mere images or creatives; they are historical, political, and cultural agents. Through these cultural branding efforts, Nike has become a historical entity whose desirability comes from these culturally, historically, and socially relevant stories that address prominent social tensions.

Comperemedia Recommends: Build an iconic brand
Once one of the brands in a category – especially the market leader – starts to build an iconic brand via cultural branding strategies, branding approaches in the rest of the category will also be impacted. Under Armour, Adidas, and the rest of the category should take note. Adopting cultural branding principles will help Under Armour break through the culture and be a cultural activist that leads the culture rather than a cultural reactionary who is a keen protector of brand essence. Previously, UnderArmour built this “edge” and “cool” by proactively pushing gender norms on the ideological level. They dramatized the competitive spirit of women in the Misty Copeland and Gisele Bundchen stories. Under Armour followed in Nike’s footsteps with the “Protect This House” campaign. They have knocked Adidas off its seat by mimicking Nike’s long-standing myth about athletes overcoming societal barriers through sheer willpower. The meteoric rise of Under Armour that the NYT article mentions was due to that period of cultural branding. Although the new “Only Way Is Through” campaign narrative structure again mimics Nike’s “Dream Crazier” spot voiced by Serena Williams in terms of aesthetics, rhetoric, and voice over, its story and execution were not as successful. Under Armour lost its cool when it started to hunt it rather than build it by addressing the prominent cultural fault lines that persist in society. So, rather than being a steward of transcendental brand essence, Under Armour would benefit from addressing a story that generates identity value that directly engages the challenging social issues of today.

Strategic Brand Storytelling

The strategic brand storytelling is about understanding that every brand cannot tell every story. It has been almost four years since Colin Kaepernick took his first knee, changing the game, the league, and the consumer and popular culture surrounding it all. Kaepernick fits with the Nike myth of changing the world through sport. With the Kaepernick ad, Nike has addressed the same contradiction Pepsi tried to address with the Kendall Jenner commercial. Pepsi was labeled a “crass imposter” as the campaign lacked the political and cultural authority to support the claim. Yet, Nike is perceived to be more credible, especially in African-American life and culture. Why did we think the Pepsi commercial was exploitative but not the Nike commercial? Because Nike has credible cultural and political authority in that space based on their previous stories of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. “It is not that radical of a pivot from them celebrating inner-city basketball players who find a sense of freedom in street hoops and Colin Kaepernick using his sport as a way to fight for the interests of those in black, low-income communities.”

Comperemedia recommends: Earn cultural authority; build political authority
Although the entire field speaks about authenticity to refer to a million different things, what advertisers and brands have to be careful about is the political and cultural authority of the brand and what it allows. “When a brand creates a story that people find valuable, it earns the authority to tell similar kinds of stories (cultural authority) to address the identity desires of a similar constituency (political authority) in the future.” Historically, cultural innovation and cultural influence flowed from the margins of society – from fringe groups, social movements, and artistic circles that challenge the norms and conventions. So does cool. Similarly, Under Armour has to understand the cultural authority the brand owns. It has to remember how the initial Baltimore story helped the brand to build its “cool” even among the NYC kids. Rather than trying to pivot the brand around its head to make Stephen Curry look cool, Under Armour should build its cool and extend it to Curry.

“Endorser” Intermediation Strategy

The upper management of Under Armour still sees athletes as endorsers. So do the authors of the story. In mainstream brand management, the endorser strategy is about affecting the consumers’ attitudes toward products through celebrity endorsements. This intermediation strategy – putting the celebrity endorser in between the fan and the brand – has been effective when advertising was used to be the most prominent form of media communication. Yet, this strategy has become less effective with the increasing popularity of social media that fosters the disintermediation capabilities of brands; that is going directly to the consumer.

Comperemedia recommends: Endorsers vs crowdcultures
Iconic brands do not work through endorsers. Iconic brands succeed when they generate cultural relevance and breakthrough in culture. Digital technologies have not only created influential new social networks but also dramatically changed how culture operates. Digital crowds now serve as very effective and prolific innovators of culture – a phenomenon Douglas Holt calls “crowdcultures.” In the digital technologies era, this cultural relevance is facilitated and maintained via crowdcultures.

Comperemedia (also) recommends: Establish authenticity and cool via cultural fluency
The NYT article mentions “the slumping sales and unflattering revelations” as indicators of the company not doing well. Many of us didn’t have to see the financial statements to foresee that the company was not doing well. If you look at consumer culture, you can see the absence of Under Armour from cultural discussions, consumer practices, and crowdcultures. Under Armour’s misalignment with the contemporary consumer culture surrounding sneaker consumption and disengagement with the prominent crowdcultures (like the drop culture, sneakerheads) are the main reasons why Under Armour is not perceived to be “a cool kid” anymore.

As a start, Under Armour should immerse itself into the highly performative consumer culture about how people buy, personalize, consume, display, trade, or keep their sneakers. The existing consumer culture in sneaker worlds is not about mass availability. It is about drop culture that demands performance from consumers to act on limited availability and to master timely engagements. Seeking mainstream appeal is the shortest and surest way to “lose cool” in the contemporary sneaker culture. (I recently addressed the curse of the mainstream appeal over on the Mintel Blog.) This is not to say that Under Armour should copy Yeezy‘s or Off-White’s strategy, but rather Under Armour should aspire to be a culture-whisperer like Kanye or Virgil Abloh. That’s why, personally, I am not a big fan of in-house agencies. It is difficult to find a cultural whisperer creative and/or strategist – with some few exceptions – in an in-house agency. When brands like Supreme are not only aligning with the contemporary consumer culture but they are leveraging the power of these digital crowdcultures to shape it, Under Armour’s old-fashioned endorser strategies fall short and flat.

To our friends at Under Armour: “Be you. It’s always been you. You are the work. You want that smoke? Give them that fire. The only way is through…”

Behice Ilhan

Behice Ilhan

Dr. Behice Ece Ilhan is the Senior Trend Strategist at Mintel. Behice provides futuristic perspectives and opinions on trends and their impact on the brand landscape, which she utilizes to strengthen engagement with CPG and agency clients on storytelling and positioning strategies.