The advantage of being a perpetual underdog

The advantage of being a perpetual underdog

iModerate Author

Mar 25, 2015

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How different can two athletic apparel brands be? Nike and Under Amour are similar for many reasons – they cater to a wide array of sports, they have high-profile athletes touting their apparel and equipment, and they both have big-impact marketing campaigns. Yet, when we reached out to consumers, we found that they see the two brands very differently. Take this chart, for example:


Consumers are using the same language (in all caps) – in many cases, the exact same words – to describe the typical Nike and Under Armour wearer. But the meaning of the words they’re using (underneath the language) is very different. Whereas the Nike words are more all-encompassing, and include athletes, fans, and health-conscious alike, the descriptions of Under Armour conjure up a narrow audience, eloquently captured under the description of sporty: dudes, sweaty, football, runner.

We did a full blown competitive analysis of the two brands, and the idea that Nike was relatable resonated throughout. Although Nike has been around for much longer (32 years longer, to be exact), this relatability is no small factor in the brand’s dominant market share. Nike is inspirational, motivational, and accessible to consumers of all shapes, sizes, and athletic abilities. Under Armour, on the other hand, is seen as a brand that caters to serious athletes only – while it delivers extraordinary performance gear, it’s certainly not for everyone. This sentiment reverberates throughout consumers’ perceptions of the gear and the brand’s advertisements: Nike is for me, Under Armour is for elite athletes.

Ironically, this difference is made clear through the similar mission statements on each of their respective websites. Under Armour’s mission is to “make all athletes better through passion, design, and the relentless pursuit of innovation” whereas Nike’s is to “bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.” The statements are nearly identical, minus the asterisk, which specifies: *if you have a body, you are an athlete. It’s that last one-liner that makes all of the difference in terms of relatability and inclusivity.

Under Armour is already taking steps to be more approachable; they’ve kicked off successful campaigns to target women[1] and purchased fitness apps to help motivate and encourage athletes of all levels. But there’s one thing that the company could leverage to appeal to the emotions of a wider audience: Kevin Plank’s story.

Under Armour’s CEO epitomizes the American Dream. He drew up the concept for the brand’s first moisture-wicking shirt while he was a student at the University of Maryland, where he had worked his way up to the position of captain of the football team after being initially ignored by recruiters and having to fight to secure a walk-on spot freshman year. He saw a common problem – cotton t-shirts held moisture like a sponge, weighing down athletes – and, upon realizing there was no solution, created his own. He started the brand in his grandmother’s basement, and employed a nose-to-the-grindstone savvy strategy, carrying two business cards as he prospected, allowing him to be Kevin Plank, CEO or Kevin Plank, Sales Representative depending on his scenario and audience at the time.[2]

Over the next years, as his brand grew, he never lost his underdog mentality, always remaining hungry and seeking opportunities for growth. Each year at Christmas, he sent Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, a card with the simple message, “You will hear about us one day.”[3] In 1996, he generated $17,000 in sales and now, just 19 years later, the company has just recorded it’s 19th quarter in a row of over 20% growth, bringing in $3.08 billion in revenue last year. Plank no longer feels the need to send Knight Christmas cards, and even refuses to address Nike by name, referring to them instead as “those guys in Oregon.”[4] His climb to the top has been self-motivated, purposeful, and unbelievably linear.

Today, as Under Armour aspires to reach out to audiences beyond their core of elite athletes and reach women, expand their shoe market, and grow internationally, Under Armour has a great story with which to reach this wide, diverse audience: Plank’s.  Regardless of athleticism, anyone can relate to and rally behind his scrappy quest as an underdog striving to overcome the best in the business. As American Express demonstrated during the Oscars[5], we love a good success story, but we don’t want to skip straight to the end. Tell us about the early days, include the adversity and struggle, and leave us inspired that someday, maybe that could be us. Why wouldn’t Under Armour widen the lens to feature gritty determination beyond that of professional athletes? It’s inspiring regardless of what competitive arena you play in.

[1] http://adage.com/article/news/marketer-year-armour/296088/

[2] http://www.cnbc.com/id/100000662

[3] http://www.forbes.com/sites/monteburke/2013/03/04/under-armours-kevin-plank-is-the-billionaire-underdog/

[4] http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/12/22/under-armour-sports-apparel-sporting-goods-kevin-plank/20243203/

[5] http://www.businessinsider.com/american-express-oscars-advertising-campaign-2015-2


Check out the Nike vs. Under Armour Brand Wars Analysis here:


iModerate Author

The results we received from the iModerate one-on-one, in-depth conversations were much more enlightening than what we typically garner from open-ended verbatim responses. The live moderator offers us the ability and flexibility to probe deeper on certain points, enabling us to get stronger, less vague information. That unique capability has proved extremely valuable to us, and has made this IM-based platform an integral part of our research toolbox.

Colleen Hepner, VP, C&R Research