Rio 2016: UA Steals Page from Nike’s Ambush Marketing Playbook

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Under Armour USA Women's Olympics Rio

Under Armor’s 90-second long “Rule Yourself” spot starring the Team USA Women’s Gymnastics is athletic ad perfection. It’s on the verge of 3 million views and deserves every single one of them. It makes pudgy, middle-age men want to do some gymnastics. And while it’s not the 5.6 million views of Under Armor’s companion Michael Phelps ad, it’s the superior spot—making a successful argument in 90 seconds that even the #likeagirl campaign could appreciate.

One would be understandably mistaken to congratulate Under Armor for rising so fast since its 1996 founding to become a sponsor of something as global as the Olympics. UA, however, is not a Rio Games official brand—but Nike is.

In 2002, one of this author’s first ever pieces for a young web “zine” called brandchannel was a long profile about how Nike successfully elbowed its way into events like the Olympics despite official competing sponsors. Titled “Ambush Marketing Steals the Show,” the profile was cited extensively, including in a few academic texts.

Times have changed, including ambush marketing. The practice is now a codified marketing strategy for global sporting events, with ambush marketing prevalent in nearly every event: the 2010 World Cup (Nike ambushing Adidas) to London 2012 (Beats ambushing Panasonic; Nike again ambushing everyone) to Euro 2016 (Nike ambushing Adidas, again). One thing obviously in common with all of those events is Nike as the ambusher. But now in Rio, Nike has become the ambushee.

How is Under Armor out-Nikeing Nike? Essentially by doing everything Nike did to every other athletic brand for 20 years until about 2005.

It currently uses “Rule Yourself” but “Fake It ’Til You Make It” should be Under Armor’s motto. The brand itself traces its big break to Hollywood, when filmmakers put UA logos on the jerseys and gear of athletes in hit football movies Any Given Sunday (1999) and The Replacements (2000). “The object was authenticity, and Under Armour delivered,” the brand writes in its own official history. With last year’s hit The Martian, Under Armour is still in love with the movies.

The brand’s huge push in 2003 built around “Protect This House” was no “Just Do It” but it got the job done. Under Armour was slowly going from that “weird upside-down U’s” logo to that laughable upstart brand that actually thinks it can challenge Nike. Of course, today Nike is the only athletic brand bigger in the US than Under Armour.

In 2007, working under the slogan “Click Clack,” UA had an IPO and its first retail experience. (Trivia: Nike also IPOed about 10 years after its founding.) Under Armour was signing up random teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and damaged star athletes like Ray Lewis. And from the beginning, Under Armour recognized female athletes were an underserved market; at 10 years old, its women’s product sales were by far outpacing its men’s sales. The brand owed some of this success to bringing in women designers years before and signing up under-the-radar female stars from the women’s US soccer and Olympic softball teams. By 2016, Nike maintained a lead in the headspace of the American consumer—but not by much.

Under Armour’s recent ambush of Nike at the 2016 Rio Games is a page from Nike’s playbook. But it’s also thanks to loosening International Olympic Committee rules, especially Rule 40. Attention to Rule 40 started at the 2012 London Games, and the rule governing what ads can and cannot be broadcast during the Olympics has expanded since. (brandchannel looked at length at the IOC Rule 40 evolution last week.) Ironically, the loosening of Rule 40, allowing Under Armour easier access to ambush Nike, came thanks to decades of Nike’s successful Olympic ambushing of other brands.

Maybe most importantly, Under Armour has copied Nike (and brands like Lulumon) in the successful creation of a community. Recent research shows brands that “prove their missions and have the communities to back them up” resonate the most with millennial consumers looking to connect with brands that stand out of the pack and offer more than a simple product for a price.

Nike is not all gloss. The company stresses technological advancement alongside its savvy marketing. It offered not just cooler shoes but better ones. Here, too, Under Armour is following Nike.

Under Armour is justifiably celebrating its victory in the race to offer a 3D-printed shoe, UA Architech, that sold out in a special event. It is also racing to integrate technology into its products with its HealthBox system. Nike, meanwhile, just released three open-source software projects for developers to play with.

Bloomberg-Businessweek recently caught up with CEO Kevin Plank in UA’s very Nike-like Baltimore-based innovation headquarters called “The Lighthouse.” It should be lost on nobody that in the interview, Plank comes across very much like the recently retired Nike guru Phil Knight. Plank’s most Knight-like detail is that he—and other Under Armour execs—refuse to even mention Nike’s name. Ironic given that the brand has no problem following Nike’s lead. Indeed, we always reserve the most criticism for the one that most reflects ourselves.

Even the financials tell of two bitter rivals with the same story. Phil Knight started out selling $8,000 worth of sneakers a year. Under Armour’s first year sales were only twice that. But within a decade, both were rockets. Nike went from $10 million to $270 million in the 1970s alone; it took just 10 years for Under Armour to reach $400 million. In 2014, Nike hit $24 billion in revenues just short of 50 years after having that $8,000 year. Under Armour is projected to finish this year with over $5 billion in sales, just 20 years after clearing only $17,000.

The East Coast vs. West Coast of brand rivalries is about to get even more dramatically high profile. NBA superstar Kevin Durant (Nike) recently announced that he would join the Golden State Warriors and its superstar Stephen Curry (new to Under Armor after Nike dissed him). Durant’s Nike line has not performed as well as its star endorser, in part because Durant’s team has never gone as far as it could. The Warriors, however, are one of the most dominant, most watched teams in NBA history. Durant’s move to Golden State is a huge move for Nike into a bigger spotlight. It seems Nike’s ambush marketing days are not totally behind it.

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