With $3 billion in annual global sales last year, Under Armour has become the second largest athletics brand in the U.S. Here's how its use of digital marketing contributes to this success.

Established in 1996, Under Armour is a young brand in the sportswear market. But thanks in part to its marketing strategy, Under Armour has already overtaken Adidas as the second largest sportswear brand in the U.S. and is now toppling Nike.

In collaboration with agency Droga5, Under Armour has created a few groundbreaking campaigns, such as its I Will What I Want ad series, which won the Cyber Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions Festival in June of this year.

How does this young brand find its own place through advertising and marketing in the highly competitive fitness apparel industry?

Stick to the tagline "I Will"

Under Armour has a very clear idea of what it stands for. The brand has been persistent with the tagline "I Will," which speaks to its origin, as the company's initially began in the back of founder Kevin Plank's truck. In keeping up with its humble roots, Under Armour sets a tone of tenacity: "I Will" is about having unyielding determination while fearlessly confronting challenges aggression. The brand's signees featured throughout the campaigns include NBA player Stephen Curry, ballerina Misty Copeland, and golf star Jordan Spieth.

"Under Armour never has trouble differentiating itself from Nike. It got its start in a truck in Baltimore. The underdog, challenger spirit is something that Under Armour always wants to maintain," says Candice Chen, senior strategist at Droga5.

This concept of "will" plays a role in every ad for Under Armour's ad initiative. For example, ads featuring the brand’s select "Women of Will" - including pro soccer player Kelley O'Hara - define "will" (Read more...) on the ability to handle pressure and conquer varying degrees of adversity that female athletes are often faced with.

Under Armour's recent Rule Yourself campaign characterizes "will" as the ability to be persistent and disciplined in the training.

And in the new Slay Your Challenge campaign, "will" is how to conquer your next challenge. 

"As a brand, Under Armour knows its mission and has created the 'I Will' tagline by itself. As its agency partner, we are here to help visualize what the ‘Will' means," Chen explains.

From an underdog to a champion

Under Armour and Nike have a lot in common: the two brands design and develop premium athletic wear, and both have made forays into utilizing sponsorships with professional athletes to drive sales.

However, the two companies' marketing approaches differs greatly:

  • Under Armour acts like an underdog, while Nike is a mighty King.
  • Under Armour is very focused on professional athletes, while Nike democratizes fitness.
  • Under Armour is about proving others wrong, while Nike is about proving yourself right.


                         Supermodel Gisele Bundchen in I Will What I Want

"It's interesting to see two brands in the same category take two different approaches to the same question. Nike is an established brand so its style reflects that established tone, while Under Armour has a chip on its shoulder and starts its ads with motivation from an external source," says Stephen Boidock, director of social media at agency Drumroll.

Such difference can be illustrated by two recent campaigns that target women. Under Armour's well received I Will What I Want campaign featured Misty Copeland, the first African American principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre. The video starts with a voiceover reading a rejection letter from a dance academy to a 13 year old applicant, presumably from Misty's own past. As the letter lists the reasons for this rejection and states, "You have the wrong body for ballet," Copeland elegantly spins and twirls, proving that inner strength can trump the expectations of others.

The motivational message in Copeland's ad and those of the other athletes in I Will What I Want campaign - such as world champion downhill skier Lindsey Vonn - shows that with enough determination, an underdog can become a champion.

Everyone can empathize with feelings of defeat after being told their aspirations are impossible, but these athletes' ability to find the strength to overcome the odds during moments of vulnerability is awe-inspiring. Even those who typically wouldn't be considered as part of Under Armour's targeted audience can still feel a genuine emotional connection to the content and relate to the ads.

By presenting the imperfections of featured female athletes, Under Armour builds on popular campaigns, like Dove's Choose Beauty and Always' Like a Girl, which aims to shatter stereotypes.

In comparison, Nike is less focused on celebrities and believes, "If you have a body, you are an athlete." Released in April of this year, Nike's largest women's campaign, Better for It, encourages women to conquer their inner insecurities with a can-do attitude. Like Nike's other executions, this spot democratizes fitness by showing how every person has their own athletic endeavor, rather than leveraging famous athletes.

"Nike exploded when Michael Jordan endorsed the brand. But now, Nike is in the position of being more aspirational and creative, while Under Armour is still trying to break the market and validate itself so the brand needs celebrities," Boidock says.

Measure social success by the goal

In terms of channel strategy, both Under Armour and Nike are leveraging social media. Compared to Nike, Under Armour has a much smaller following base on social and it posts less often on Twitter and Instagram.


Under Armour posts an average of one image a day on Instagram, according to social analytics platform Socialbakers. 

According to Chen, Under Armour doesn't measure its social media success by how many fans it has on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook. Instead, the company is more focused on defining what its goals are and then determining what platforms will help it achieve the goals.

socialbakers-ua-2Socialbakers shows that Under Armour's followers were growing over the past month.

While Nike has more product selections so promoting its products is the goal on social, Under Armour aims to change people's perception of the brand before the company asks consumers to purchase something. Therefore, it constantly posts inspirational quotes and graphics about sports influencers for brand awareness.

                          Nike's Twitter is very product heavy.

"Social media is not only about what your brand is saying, but is also about what influencers are talking about. You can use those statements and philosophies to empower your brand," Chen says.

At the moment, Under Armour doesn't have the brand awareness and tradition that Nike comes with, but the company is in the right direction. The most important strategies one can learn from Under Armour are:

  • Be clear about your brand mission.
  • Although targeting the right audience is always priority, appealing to universal humanistic experiences and emotions creates more potential to expand the brand audience. 
  • No matter what your channel strategy is, don't be afraid to provide your consumers an experience beyond a simple call-to-action.

Homepage image via Droga5.

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