No Sweat

Like many upstarts, Under Armour made a splash with a breakthrough product, then promptly found itself facing Goliaths. Here’s how an un-likely giant killer is protecting its house from megabrands like Nike.

Team up with your customers.

Founder and president Kevin Plank gave prototypes of his original sweat-wicking shirt to his football buddies and used their feedback to improve it and develop new products. The early buy-in from athletes gave Under Armour much-needed credibility and generated word of mouth among college and high school jocks. Last year, Under Armour became the official supplier to the University of Maryland football team, giving it a focus group of top athletes in its backyard.


Develop a playbook for new products.

Plank was determined that Under Armour would remain the industry leader, not a one-hit wonder that would fade as soon as competitors copied his idea. The product-development team is focused on coming up with new fabrics, applications, and designs. It brainstorms with top athletes as well as scientists studying how the body regulates temperature during exercise. Innovation helps Under Armour stand out in a crowded field.

Know when to stretch.

With a hot brand, it’s tempting to believe that almost anything sporting the Under Armour logo will sell. But at what cost? Some of the best decisions that Plank makes are what not to pursue. If a product doesn’t fit the brand values — if it’s not authentic and doesn’t perform for consumers — he isn’t interested. When Under Armour decided to market to women, it added more fashionable colors, but the ads remained true to Under Armour’s identity. They spoke to women as serious athletes.

Put on your creativity helmet.

Outmanned and outfunded, Under Armour has learned to play the marketing game differently. It can’t flood the airwaves with ads, so it has to create something that lasts longer than 30 seconds. The “Protect This House” campaign gave real teams and fans a fun line to shout. The first two ads generated more than 160,000 calls and emails and the sort of publicity you can’t put a price on.

Play big, no matter your size.

Under Armour acts big when it needs to. By investing in efficient, sophisticated, and reliable inventory-management systems and processes, it can deliver the goods, not just whip up demand. But its stateside minifactory, the 4th Quarter Shop, allows it to stay small and flexible. It handles last-minute orders and engenders loyalty among retailers.

Think big, no matter your market.

McDonald’s and Coke define their competition as anything you eat or drink. Likewise, Plank says his competition isn’t other performance apparel. It’s cotton. By defining Under Armour’s market as any instance in which people need clothes to stay cool, warm, or dry, he expands the company’s growth potential.


About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug