Clio Sports Awards: Under Armour Takes a 'Rough, Ragged, Raw' Approach to Marketing

Courtesy of Under Armour
Misty Copeland

The brand, which posted net revenue of more than $2.3 billion in 2013, will be honored with the Brand Innovation Awards at the inaugural awards ceremony July 17.

This story first appeared in the July 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When it comes to successful sports marketing, sometimes it really does pay to let them see you sweat. "In sports advertisements, often what you'd see is just the team holding up a trophy," says Steve Battista, senior vp brand creative at Under Armour, a Baltimore-based apparel, footwear and equipment manufacturer that has taken a different approach. "We delve into the training and the hard work that got you there. It is going to be rough and ragged and raw."

He cites a shoot involving Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, who was surprised by how intense a workout the company required during a commercial shoot. "He's working out, and he's like, 'Are you guys going to start rolling?' " recalls Battista. "We're like, 'No, man, we want you to get a real sweat going,' and he understood."

Partly for that sweat-and-all approach, Under Armour will receive the Brand Innovation Award during the inaugural Clio Sports Awards ceremony. Founded in 1996 by former University of Maryland football player Kevin Plank, who developed a fabric that does not hold sweat like cotton T-shirts, the company posted net revenue of more than $2.3 billion in 2013. Its marketing allocation amounted to $246.5 million, which it plans to increase to $330 million this year. "It's not just for their marketing and advertising when we give an honorary award. It is for innovation -- what Kevin Plank created with these products and what he's also doing on the marketing side," says Nicole Purcell, executive vp of the Clio Awards, which like The Hollywood Reporter are owned by Guggenheim Media.

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Under Armour's promotions feature a roster of brand ambassadors including Phelps and NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Cam Newton, as well as nonsports personalities like Misty Copeland, a soloist with the American Ballet Theatre who signed an endorsement deal in January. But while name recognition is a welcome boost, says Battista, it is not central to the company's strategy. Rather, he explains, Under Armour's advertising is designed to spotlight its unique promotional strategy. Battista's team does not merely recruit athletes but involves their coaches or trainers to add authenticity to the workouts filmed. "Every athlete, every trainer, every coach, they're going to bring something authentic," he says. "We're not just going to spray sweat on them."

The company also turns to Hollywood talent like Lone Survivor helmer Peter Berg, who has directed two commercials for the brand. Berg became involved while researching his 2004 film Friday Night Lights; he noticed high schoolers wearing Under Armour in locker rooms, called the company and placed an order.

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The athletes, in turn, are involved fully in the creative process, often making suggestions on story, music and other elements, notes Battista. Ray Lewis, whose endorsement deal with Under Armour in 2007 made the Super Bowl-winning former NFL linebacker one of the company's first high-profile signings, recently was an executive producer on a commercial that revolved around high school football players in inner-city Baltimore. "Lewis came into the office with a legal pad full of notes, things he wanted to get out," says Battista. "He gave some really key insights like, 'You guys always do the team thing.' " Lewis proposed focusing on a contest between two players, and Battista said, "That's it."