Since its 1996 founding, Under Armour has ridden its testosterone-soaked brand to breathtaking growth, with revenue surging 40% to more than $600 million in 2007, and another 26% through the first nine months of 2008, according to company filings.
But the company is now so big that, if it wants to keep growing, it may have to leave behind some of the attitude that bolstered its original appeal. This month's launch of a full running-shoe line -- featuring such styles as the Revenant and the Apparition -- promises to test whether the marketer can broaden its appeal without alienating core "Protect This House" devotees.
Launching a line of pricy shoes ($80 to $120) in the midst of a downturn is a bold step, but Under Armour -- which last year launched its cross-trainer line with a 60-second Super Bowl ad four months before the shoes were even available -- has never been much for tip-toeing into a category.
Forgoing this year's Bowl in favor of a different tack, Senior VP-Brand Steve Battista nevertheless said, "When we speak, we speak loudly."
Mr. Battista, 34, who has spent his entire nine-year marketing career at Under Armour, discussed those challenges with Ad Age at the December launch event for the running-shoe line in New York.
Ad Age: Running is a much broader category than you have played in before. Is it hard taking a brand that's derived so much of its appeal from having such a strong point of view and so much intensity into a much more general category like running? Do you risk diluting it at all?
Mr. Battista: I don't see any challenge or threat to diluting the brand whatsoever. We've done everything on our own timeline and done everything strategically, aligning the launches throughout the years. We wanted to start on the field first and fit into team sports with cleated footwear. And then we wanted to solve the problem of training and reinvigorate what, frankly, had been a dormant category, which we did last year and had great success. And that set the table, really, for run. And the approach that we're taking for our run merchandising is not about excluding anyone or speaking to one specific category of runners, but it's about reminding everybody that all athletes are runners.
Ad Age: Sure, but the new ads, if you look at them, are pretty different from what you've done previously. All your ads used to be set in this sort of post-apocalyptic urban doomscape, and now you've got people running on the beach and in the woods. Granted, you've still got Brandon Jacobs racing trains. And musically, pretty much all the old spots used music that had sort of an industrial stomp to it, and now we've got peppy rock guitars.
Mr. Battista: The song is Moby's take on "Schoolhouse Rock." The setting of all these vignettes is all 100% authentic. Santana Moss is on the Mall in Washington, D.C., where he plays. Brandon Jacobs in the train yard up here in New York City. Brandon Jennings running through the streets of Rome where he's now playing basketball. Heather Mitts on the treadmill as an Olympic soccer player, part of her training. Even down to Nicole Branagh, the Olympic volleyball player, running on the beach where she trains every day.
Ad Age: Is the diversity of the backdrops also driven by the breadth of the category?
Mr. Battista: When you talk about the breadth of the category, one thing to consider is that this is probably our biggest and best vehicle to reach the female consumer to date. When you talk about that this is our most inclusive campaign ever, that means including not just athletes but also including different forums and different types of venues to tell the story. And that means that the women's-specific creative will run in some new places for us after this launch.
Ad Age: You mean the old creative with [longtime brand spokesman/mascot] Big E [NFL player Eric Ogbogu] grunting and screaming, "We must protect this house," doesn't scream out to women?
Mr. Battista: Well, women scream for Big E, I can tell you that much. The guy can't even walk into a mall or a Home Depot without somebody asking him for an autograph or to yell, "We must protect this house." ... But we are maturing as a brand, and there's no sense of watering it down when you're talking about something as pure and as authentic as a category as running. We just wanted to finish off team sports before we took on the category of run.
Ad Age: How does being in a broad category like running change the media mix for you guys? Will we see you in places we haven't before?
Mr. Battista: You'll see us in some women's publications we haven't been in before, and on some networks we haven't been on before.
Ad Age: Looking at the athletes in the running creative, it's sort of striking that you didn't use anybody who was, you know, a runner. It's hard to imagine Asics or New Balance doing that.
Mr. Battista: Well, Chris McCormack is a triathlete, but you've got to remember: He runs a marathon only after swimming through some serious water, sometimes shark-infested water, and riding a bike for a hundred-plus miles. But, again, our approach is that he's an athlete. A multi-skilled athlete. And we want to talk to runners who train to run, and athletes who run to train.
Ad Age: Back to the non-running stuff for a minute. Talk to me about the deal you just signed with the NFL to sponsor its scouting combine.
Mr. Battista: It's going to be the "NFL Combine Powered by Under Armour." Here's an event that very few people get to see. ... You've got all these athletes working out on the most important day of their careers, in many respects, in terms of the times that they record, how much they lift. And it's just a chance for us to partner with the NFL to shed a different light on that week. ... The presenting sponsorship means a lot of the "Run" creative and a lot of the new football creative that we have will be running during the broadcast. And it also allows us to speak to the football athlete 12 months a year.
Ad Age: Now it's widely expected that next year at this time, you will be talking about moving into basketball. You guys have sort of grazed Nike up to this point, but that's obviously really their turf. How can you compete with the resources they and Adidas and others put into that category?
Mr. Battista: We don't get in check-writing wars. We'll compete [in basketball] the only way we know how, which is by making great products that help players perform better. And just by virtue of that, these players want to wear our gear. ... The days of not paying athletes are long gone, but we don't subscribe to the theory of writing a huge check and chasing athletes around with that. These guys wear it because they know it makes them better.
Ad Age: So probably no Lebron for you guys, then?
Mr. Battista: (Laughs.) Probably not. But basketball is in our future. Two things we can guarantee with every launch is that we will deliver great new innovation with the product and that the brand will deliver entirely new energy and buzz into whatever category it enters.