Under Armour's image has been taking a beating due to the disastrous performance of the U.S. Olympic speedskating team while wearing its high-tech racing suits in Sochi. The athletic giant is turning to its own paid endorsers such as Olympic gold medalists Lindsey Vonn and Michael Phelps to try to turn the tide of bad PR.
Proud to be an @UnderArmour athlete. I've been with them for 8 yrs and they constantly find ways to improve their gear and make me better!— lindsey vonn (@lindseyvonn) February 18, 2014
On Tuesday night, Ms. Vonn, the injured gold medalist who would have been UA's biggest competitor in Sochi, tweeted her support for the company's high-tech performance gear -- without mentioning the speedskating fiasco unfolding in Sochi.
The Wall Street Journal broke the story that some U.S. speedskaters were blaming what they believed to be design flaw in UA's new competition suits for allegedly slowing them down in Sochi. ESPN's Darren Rovell reported the team was abandoning them for other UA gear worn in last month's World Cup in Japan. That didn't work either, raising the question whether the suits or the skaters themselves were to blame for their performance in Sochi.
"Proud to be an @UnderArmour athlete. I've been with them for 8 yrs and they constantly find ways to improve their gear and make me better," tweeted Ms. Vonn, whose profile has only increased due to her romantic relationship with Tiger Woods.
Ms. Vonn has appeared in numerous Under Armour videos and ads, including this one from a 2010 campaign. (The marketer's creative is handled in-house.)
Mr. Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, and MLB pitcher Clayton Kershaw, previously pledged their support on social media.
"Proud to be part of UA family, great products and support that help make me the best athlete I can be. #IWILL @UnderArmour," tweeted Mr. Phelps, who won 18 gold medals in swimming.
Mr. Kershaw, the Los Angeles Dodgers ace, tweeted from Spring Training: "Can't thank @UnderArmour enough for the new gear. Always fun to see what they come up with every year."
Matt Mirchin, UA's exective VP of global marketing, confirmed UA had "conversations" with endorsers about defending the company's performance products. Others came to the company on their own due to the negative headlines coming out of Sochi, he said.
When Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton met with UA executives this week on another topic, he was "angry" about the beating his sponsor was taking in the press, said Mr. Mirchin. Look for Mr. Newton to also publicly express his support on social media
"It's great to see the support that we're getting from professional athletes that have worn our product and won medals in it, or championships while competing at the highest levels, as well as consumers who have reached out to us to saying what a shame this is and how unjustified this is," said Mr. Mirchin. "I think the consumer -- and the public -- know it's not the suits."
Despite stars such as Shani Davis and Heather Richardson, Team USA's long-track speedskaters have failed to medal in Russia after winning four medals at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
UA has no plans, at this point, to address the controversial Mach 39 speedkating suits developed with Lockheed Martin in its advertising or marketing, according to Mr. Mirchin. "We did our job. They did their job. We don't have any regrets. Our job is to make athletes better. We believe we had put the athletes in the best position from what they were wearing to win medals."
Instead, the company adopting a three-pronged Crisis PR counterattack. First, have endorsers such as Ms. Vonn publicly praise the quality of its products. Two, vigorously defend the Mach 39 in media interviews. Three, point to public statements by the USOC that it doesn't "believe" the suits are to blame.
"While we will leave no stone unturned when we analyze Sochi results, based on current information, we do not believe the suits were the problem," said USOC CEO Scot Blackmun in a statement. "We believe in innovation and it is only through the generosity of US Speedskating partners like Under Armour and Lockheed Martin that a sport like speedskating can innovate."
Walking a fine line
The strategy of using its paid endorsers to fire off what amounts to sponsored tweet opens up Under Armour to criticism. Bust as the apparel sponsor of U.S. speedkating, UA has to tread lightly when it comes to defending itself, said sports marketing experts.
In today's 24-7 news environment, UA has to fight back publicly. But it can't exactly publicly accuse athletes of using the suits a scapegoats for their own failure. That would backfire on the athletic company.
"They have to walk a fine line. It would be a mistake to comment on anything having to do with the athletes and their performance. I think they're doing the right thing by not saying anything [about the athletes]. Their hands are tied," said Hyaat Chaudhary, CEO of Carbon Media Group.
Whether the suits are to blame or not, there's no doubt the Under Armour brand has taken a short-term hit as its tries to expand globally against Nike, said Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates. But he doesn't believe it will suffer long-term damage.
For one thing, sports fans couldn't care less about speed-skating during the four-year gap between Winter Olympics. The UA brand would be in far more trouble if the college football prospects gathering at the UA-sponsored NFL Combine in Indianapolis complained about its gear, he noted.
Mr. Adamson sees U.S. Speedskating's performance more as a "missed opportunity" for UA. "Winning is the great halo for any brand. The more your brand is associated with winners, across any category, the better off you are."