Under Armour’s Focus on Women Paying Dividends

When then-21-year-old alpine ski racer Lindsey Vonn first joined Under Armour in 2006, the decade-old apparel and performance brand out of Baltimore didn’t offer much in terms of women’s-specific apparel or gear.

Like many companies before it and at that time, Under Armour fell victim to the “shrink it and pink it” marketing strategy in an effort to appeal to female customers.

“In the beginning there was literally nothing—men’s gear but in pink,” said Vonn, who released her own UA collection in 2018 and joined Project Rock in 2019. “I always made fun of (founder) Kevin (Plank) for it. I came on board and they started focusing on women and empowering them and giving them a larger percentage of the market. I really felt they believed in me and women and developed products in that way.”

Under Armour’s dedication to its female consumers through specific products and innovations has continued through 2020. The company is releasing its women’s HOVR Breakthru basketball shoe on September 17—available exclusively through Under Armour and Dick’s Sporting Goods online and in stores nationwide—and its Meridian + Moisture Infuse (M+MI) line on September 23.

The M+MI line is an evolution of their popular Meridian legging, featuring fabric that helps replenish lost moisture and keeps the skin hydrated longer. According to studies, individuals lose an average of one liter of water every hour of exercise; wearers of the M+MI line of products benefit from 26% better moisturization after wearing for three consecutive eight-hour days.

The line also features a no-slip waistband and side pockets; two features directly communicated to Under Armour developers by consumers and athletes through first-hand feedback.

“Every project is unique and it isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, but consumers and athletes are at the center of our decision making,” said Morgan Goerke, Under Armour vice-president and general manager of women’s training & girls. “The new legging platform with the new waistband innovation coming out was born out of trying-on events with consumers. We found the waistband was a defining factor when trying on leggings, so how do we create a solution for the waistband that stays put?”

The HOVR Breakthru basketball shoe was developed with the same consumer- and athlete-first mentality.

“I know a lot of girls who don’t want a men’s shoe and want their own,” said Dallas Wings guard Tyasha Harris, who joined Team UA in July. “Now we have a women’s shoe, so young girls can buy these shoes to wear on the court. I have two little sisters so I know it’s a big thing for them too.”

Increase in sales

Since the beginning of 2020, Under Armour has witnessed an increase in sales on its women’s side despite the coronavirus pandemic. Online dollar sales of UA women’s activewear apparel rose by 77% in the United States from January through May versus a year ago, according to NPD Group’s Consumer Tracking Service.

Women are driving Under Armour’s e-commerce growth, even before the pandemic, with sales of women’s apparel up 214% on the company’s website at the end of Q1 in 2020. Online sales of full-priced girls’ items are up 46% to date as well.

“It all really goes back to 2018 when we refocused our positioning and engaged in a massive transformation in this brand and did the same within women’s,” Goerke said. “We thought, ‘What are things core to our brand DNA?’ It came down to being a performance brand, an athlete brand and an industry and apparel innovation leader. So how do we take that brand DNA and create solutions for her?

“In the past we have had a few different approaches to the women’s business, but this is really about leveraging our brand DNA to create consumer-centric innovation. When you think about the timeline to execution both against product development and innovation, this is the first season we really had a coming out party as it relates to that strategy. We really knew we were onto something.”

While women’s apparel sales were up, Under Armour, like many other companies and industries, has felt the wrath of the coronavirus pandemic. The company on March 31 reported Q1 revenue was down 23% to $930 million with approximately 15 percentage points related to COVID-19 pandemic impacts in the quarter. Revenue was down 41% to $708 million in Q2, the company announced on July 31. Under Armour announced on September 8 it will lay off approximately 600 employees from its global workforce as part of cost-cutting measures as a result of the pandemic.

“We’re also seeing positive trends and building momentum within our women’s train category, from leveraging deep athlete insights into product creation, to targeting consumers through successful marketing activations, like our anthem and product videos to stunning inclusive imagery, coupled with simple language that explains exactly what our products do,” Under Armour CEO Patrik Frisk said during the Q2 earnings call. “We are speaking directly to the focused performer. As a result, we saw strong demand in the quarter for a number of women’s products, including the Play Up short, our Infinity and Mid Crossback sports bras and the Meridian pant, which continues to be a strong seller.”

Female-focused

In 2013, Under Armour recorded $2.3 billion in sales, though only $500 million came from women’s apparel. Plank wanted to change that, so Under Armour made its first major push on the women’s side with the viral video campaign “I Will What I Want.”

Launched on July 31, 2014, “I Will What I Want” was Under Armour’s most expansive global women’s marketing campaign to date, featuring women’s soccer star Kelley O’Hara, American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland, and Vonn. The campaign produced 5 billion media impressions across the globe and $35 million in earned media, which resulted in a 28% increase in women’s sales and a 42% increase in traffic to UA.com.

“The ‘I Will What I Want’ campaign was the biggest changing moment,” said Vonn, the most-decorated female ski racer with three Olympic medals and 82 World Cup victories. “They dedicated a ton of marketing money to it; it was a full circle, 360-degree support of women and I loved it. It was such a great campaign and I think we’ve grown upon that every year.”

Under Armour followed up that campaign by launching “Unlike Any” on July 19, 2017, highlighting six of its female athletes: world champion sprinter Natasha Hastings, professional stuntwoman Jessie Graff, taekwondo champion Zoe Zhang, long distance runner Alison Desir, Copeland and Vonn.

Under Armour reported $5.19 billion in total revenue in 2018 with $3.46 billion (67% of total revenue) from apparel sales.

The company’s “The Only Way is Through” campaign launched on January 14, 2020 featuring an array of UA athletes including Michael Phelps, Steph Curry, O’Hara, heptathlete Georgia Ellenwood, and Olympic volleyball gold medalist Zhu Ting.

Future is female

Beyond continuing to expand sales on the women’s side—not only focusing on athletes, but also the at-home fitness gurus and gym goers—Under Armour is looking toward the future by signing the next generation of female athletes.

Under Armour signed WNBA trio Bella Alarie, Kaila Charles, and Harris on July 23, expanding a roster of young athletes including stock car racer Hailie Deegan and Ellenwood; all of whom are 25 years old or younger.

“We want to make sure we have a roster of athletes we can work closely with and they can represent the next generation for us,” Goerke said. “Participation in sports has been on the rise for women and we want to be there to support them. We’re focused on all performers—fitness and in sports. We want to make sure we have a young roster of talent really focused on the next generation of female athletes.”

The industry as a whole has seen a focal shift to women. Nike launched its first dedicated maternity collection, Nike (M), on September 1, and WNBA stars including Sabrina Ionescu, Natasha Cloud, Asia Durr, and Kia Nurse have signed deals with companies including Nike, Converse and Jordan Brand.

While Harris doesn’t have her own UA shoe just yet—“hopefully in the future,” she says—Under Armour’s commitment to the female athlete is showing Harris and others that the future is indeed female.

“Under Armour is pushing the way through for women’s things and products, including with specific basketball shoes and clothes,” said Harris, who recently helped surprise her former University of South Carolina teammates with Under Armour shoes. “In the NBA, a lot of people look at the players and listen to them. Now they’re listening to us and it helps regular people see women have a say in stuff too and that we’re just as important as men.”

NOTE: First appeared on Forbes SportsMoney

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