Under Armour Takes on Nike in Bold Move

Ok, maybe Under Armour isn’t picking a direct fight with Nike and the other big sports apparel companies, but they are poised to make a big breakthrough.

But, it is Nike that Under Armour is after, however. Or, at least, it’s Nike’s brand essence: athletic performance. This week the sports performance apparel, footwear and accessories brand launched I WILL™, its largest-ever global marketing campaign. The gauntlet has been thrown; Under Armour is stepping up in weight class and taking on the big guys. And don’t be surprised when they win.

Ten years ago, the brand launched one of the most inspirational and energetic ads around with “Protect This House”. The commercial was a prescient to Friday Night Lights, showing the inspiration of athletes as they amped up for competition. It was powerful in its promise – to encourage the best performance out of athletes. And what was amazing about the positioning is that it reflected the product itself, one about protection and performance.

And now they are in full launch mode. “I WILL” is taken directly from Under Armour’s roots. It is the answer in the original commercials that asked “Will you Protect This House?” (the chant that became an anthem for gym rats and frat boys, and made even more popular by athletes like George St. Pierre and Tom Brady).

If the first campaign was Under Armour announcing their presence with authority, then this campaign is a whisper. They have a simple promise – “Our job is to make you better. To make ALL athletes better. One innovation at a time.” It seems simple. Most great marketing seems simple. But, it is extremely well crafted and there is great brevity in those words. This is a brand for athletes. This is a brand for performance. And this is a brand about innovation.

As Nike and others play around with fun commercials (see the investment in Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods), Under Armour has gotten serious. Nike can own whimsy, but they aren’t the only ones who can own performance. Under Armour is taking them on directly with Under Armour39, which is a richer version of Nike’s Fuelband, promising to measure an athlete’s will power.

Under Armour is at the top of their game. It’s not often that you get to watch a brand about to emerge and become the next big thing. They are poised for greatness. They know who they are. They know what they stand for. And they know how to bring it to life in all of their communications. Some brands just get it. You know the ones. Coke. Harley Davidson. Apple. And yes, Nike. Everything these brands do just seems like such a logical extension of the reason why they exist.

In a world of more media consumption than ever before and more bombardments of messages and sales pitches, it’s nice to see a company go back to the core it all and ask “why do we exist?”

It seems that there are a lot of brands these days that market or advertise almost as an evil necessity. Many retail brands seem perfectly set with bludgeoning audiences with frequency and relying on generic commercials painted heavily in the company’s brands colors, as if to say that’s branding in and of itself. Frequency and reputation help brand recognition scores, but don’t necessarily equate to effective marketing.

Take notice; Under Armour isn’t a top 50 most-recognized brand, and they’re not spending billions of dollars doing global advertising. They are a David in a world of Goliath’s. The global sports apparel industry is set to reach over $125B by 2015, but big players who have global deals with major sports and media conglomerates dominate it. Under Armour can’t outflank the big guys, but they can stick to their brand. They can stick to their game plan and they can own the athletes. The rest of us will follow. Make sure you watch this company, they are poised for bigger things; cause I know, I WILL.

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