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Under Armour Targets Females With Ads That Put Premium on Sweat, Not Style

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CHICAGO ( -- Under Armour built a men's-sports-apparel empire on the back of sweating, chest-thumping, testosterone-fueled creative, and now it's betting heavily that same approach will sell just as well to women.
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Running the right race? Some analysts doubt Under Armour's push will appeal to a wide audience of women.

The $430 million marketer earlier this month finished shooting what it expects to be the largest ad campaign in its history: a series of ads that show Under Armour-outfitted female athletes gutting and grunting their way through grueling workouts.

Narrow audience
Under Armour executives said they hope the campaign helps propel women's apparel sales past those of its men's brand, but both marketing-to-women experts and Wall Street see that as potentially grueling in its own right. "If they just want credibility with hardcore athletes, it can work," said Leo Burnett Exec VP Denise Fedewa, who runs the agency's LeoShe consultancy, which works with marketers such as Procter & Gamble and Hallmark on targeting women. "But if they're trying to burst to a wider audience, it may wind up being too serious and too narrow."

The pressure on Under Armour to grow its women's line quickly is, in part, a product of the staggering success of its men's line, which led a total revenue increase from $20 million in 2002 to more than $430 million last year. In order to keep growth rates up to satisfy investors, it needs to grow the higher-upside women's business -- which accounts for just over 20% of sales.

Under Armour's first attempt at advertising to women came two years ago, when it aired a spot starring U.S. soccer star Heather Mitts working out to the English pop group Squeeze's "Goodbye Girl." The spot's bright lighting and sunny guitar riffs stood in stark contrast to Under Armour's darker, more-intense football creative, which usually ended with an angry athlete screaming, "We must protect this house!"

"Women came to us and said, 'Where's our 'Protect this house'?" said Steve Battista, Under Armour's VP-brand. "They wanted a rallying cry."

New catchphrase
The new ads, which, like their predecessors, were produced in-house, will give women exactly that, though Mr. Battista declined to reveal the new catchphrase. The spots show teams of female athletes strutting and straining through workouts just like the NFL stars in the "Click-Clack" spots Under Armour used to introduce its line of football cleats.
Under Armour found that women wanted their own rallying cry.
Under Armour found that women wanted their own rallying cry.

The company spent about $16 million on advertising last year, but that's expected to continue rising with its revenue. The new push will encompass cable and network TV, internet, print, and in-store media.

John Fraser, exec VP of Omnicom Group's Element 79 Sports, which works with Gatorade, Propel and the LPGA, said Under Armour's target audience (women aged 14 to 22) is more likely to respond to the new tack. "What we've found is there's a pretty good percentage of women who are ultracompetitive and who are likely to respond to a competitive appeal like this," he said.

Still, skepticism abounds, particularly on Wall Street, where some analysts have expressed doubts about the brand's appeal to women given that growth hasn't lived up to expectations thus far. "The women's business does benefit from a halo effect based on the appeal of Under Armour's aspirational, authentic brand positioning with men," wrote Goldman Sachs analyst Margaret Mager in a recent note to investors. "However, the appeal of 'Protect this house' to women can only be characterized as limited."

Serious athletes
Part of the limited appeal to women can be attributed to the brand's history of catering to serious athletes who care more about how much sweat an undershirt can wick than whether its sleeves match their pants.

Now that's changing. Under Armour is offering its apparel in a wider range of colors and styles to appeal to a broader range of women than just jocks, but that carries a risk too.

"They need a multiyear strategy that starts with athletic credibility and then broadens out," Ms. Fedewa said. "If they go straight to fashion appeal, it could become a fad brand."
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