Watch out, Nike: Under Armour is coming to get you

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Under Armour's latest campaign will propel the brand one step closer to rival Nike

Sports and fitness brands should focus less on Tom Brady’s involvement in Under Armour’s new marketing campaign and more on how the Baltimore-based former category underdog is quickly ascending the ranks.

"Rule Yourself," unveiled on Monday, is Under Armour’s first major brand campaign, featuring star athletes in 60-second ads and short films around the theme "practice makes perfect." The initiative’s core message about commitment and hard work also applies to Under Armour’s exponential success in recent years.

Earlier this year, Under Armour usurped the No. Two spot in the US sportswear market from Adidas, according to data by Sterne Agee and SportScanInfo.

It underlined Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank’s comments two years ago at a Goldman Sachs conference, when he said, "We believe we’re a $10 billion brand that is doing $2 billion in business today."

Plank has told media outlets he believes the company can reach that $10 billion by 2020, and based on Under Armour’s growth in the last decade, it is on track. As of December 2014, the brand has seen 18 consecutive quarters of 20% revenue growth and four consecutive quarters up 30%. Its annual revenue in 2014 was up 30% in the US and 86% internationally, year over year.

While Under Armour’s revenue is still upstaged by market behemoth Nike, at $3 billion in annual sales compared to the latter’s $28 billion last year, the new kid on the block is making rapid strides. Five years ago, Nike’s business was 19 times larger than Under Armour; by the end of 2015, that multiple is expected to shrink to eight.

The story is similar to that of Nike versus Reebok about 30 years ago. In 1989 — 25 years after its foundation – Nike began pulling ahead of Reebok, its rival at the time. Reebok launched in 1958 after branching out from sister company JW Foster and Sons.

Under Armour is now 19 years old, and it’s edging closer to Nike every quarter. It’s no surprise that a hot young brand is gaining so much traction — people are inherently attracted to the shiny new object in the room. That’s why it’s important for older, iconic brands to continue innovating and regain a startup mentality.

A few weeks ago, the launch of Converse’s Chuck Taylor All Star II — a Nike subsidiary — received fantastic feedback, particularly because it was the first public collaboration between the 98-year-old Converse and Nike. While Nike used its technology to enhance the Chuck Taylor shoes, it didn’t change the style, and the sports-apparel giant also stepped back to let Converse claim the media spotlight.

It was a great way to breathe new life into a once-loved brand. Maybe Nike should use similar tactics on its own lines of shoes and apparel in order to stay fresh and relevant. 

"Rule Yourself" first features this season’s NBA MVP Stephen Curry, which illustrates Under Armour’s strategy of highlighting individual athletes in its marketing efforts, such as 18-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, champion golfer Jordan Spieth, and top tennis player Andy Murray.

The campaign’s debut spot, "Anthem," received 33,000 views on Under Armour’s Facebook page in one day and 409 favorites on Twitter. But the social-media pickup from Curry’s personal handles was more impressive, with 1,300 favorites on his tweet about the film in the first 24 hours.

Focusing on individual athletes rather than teams allows consumers to build a more personal connection with the content, but Under Armour has had a little pushback in the media this week about keeping recently suspended New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the campaign.

But the company has not wavered on its decision to stick by the high-profile ball player. "Tom will have his moment to redeem himself," Adrienne Lofton, SVP of brand marketing at Under Armour, told the New York Times. "There was absolutely no moment where we said we should pull him out of the campaign."

Regardless of whether consumers love or hate Brady or think he cheated last year during #DeflateGate, they can’t deny his athleticism and dedication to football. The four-time Super Bowl champion underscores the campaign’s message of how working hard and training pays off.

The brand has integrated its theme about training — a category that made up half its $2.3 billion apparel business in 2014, according to the Times — into its culture for years. Under Armour has become synonymous with hardcore fitness for many fans and it’s solidified that message with recent technological advancements.

Two years, ago, the brand acquired the MapMyFitness app, and this January it released its own app at the Consumer Electronics Show called UA Record. Earlier this month, Under Armour announced a partnership with the NBA — for which the brand has served as a league partner since 2011 — to release an app called NBA Fit. The new tool will integrate with UA Record.

In addition to reaching fitness training enthusiasts, Under Armour has also made a strong effort to reach two other key audiences: women and children.

The company’s "I Will What I Want" campaign, starring Tom Brady’s wife Gisele Bundchen, not only earned Under Armour and IMG agency Catalyst a Cannes Silver PR Lion, it also helped further the important discussion around empowering women.

And Under Armour hasn’t forgotten about youth fans either — its next generation of consumers. The brand sponsors a number of youth teams and associations, such as Pop Warner, which is the largest football, cheer and dance program in the world for kids aged five to 16, with about 325,000 participants across 42 states.

Under Armour may still be a lot smaller than Nike, both in revenue and social media following, with 10 times fewer Twitter fans than its giant-sized opponent. But the games are heating up in this David and Goliath faceoff, and the underdog is increasingly coming on strong.

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