Under Armour: Tell me a story
Updated: Jan 24
Blake Simpson is an evangelist for corporate storytelling.
A TEDx speaker, PRWeek Hall of Femme member, and global communications executive, Simpson is transforming the Under Armour public relations function into a storytelling platform focusing on the company’s earnings and leadership, along with community, philanthropic and sustainability initiatives.
Four days after Blake joined the Baltimore company in early 2020, COVID-19 shuttered their offices, and shut down the sporting events that showcased the highly visible Under Armour team sponsorships. Forced to call an audible barely a week into the job, Simpson's team during the pandemic pivoted from college and professional sports to a focus on at-home workout products and personal health.
“The role that we play in helping to connect the consumer to the business through that level of storytelling is critical,” Blake said during a 2020 webinar. “It’s a very simple formula for me with what the consumer wants, right. They want to know what you do as a company. They want to know what you can solve for them. They want to know, more importantly, what you solve for society, which goes back to purpose. And then, what do you stand for.”
Before online media, companies like Under Armour were reliant on driving publicity into the mass media – newspapers, magazines, television, and radio -- to reach consumers at scale. With digitization, owned and shared media have supplemented the traditional press as tactical channels for releasing financial news, publicizing product offerings, announcing major corporate initiatives, and – in extreme cases – responding to crisis events.
The PR playbook
During this course, we'll examine media relations and internal communications. We will explore case studies ranging from integrated marketing communication to financial PR. We will assess opportunities and risks embedded in the rapidly evolving environmental, social and governance movements. Yes, there will be some math as we take a critical look at media metrics. Ultimately, we will wrap up by exploring a series of crisis events, and a corporate miracle.
But before we start, let’s get on the same page. Let's define some key terms and concepts involved in PR and communications campaigns. We will start with a framework used in marketing communication to distinguish between various channels of communication used in PR.
PESO stands for Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned communications. Two of those channels, Paid and Owned, are controlled by a company, cause or candidate, while the two others -- Shared and Earned -- are uncontrolled. So let's scramble the PESO into the PR POSE:
Paid media, prior to the internet, was fairly straightforward. Paid media consisted of advertising. Television commercials. Print ads. Paid product placements in movies or television shows. Simple. But the online media changed that. The top return on a Google search often is tagged as an ad. News sites are becoming increasingly creative about inserting ads into news coverage, seemingly in hopes that a heavy thumb will click into them. Editorial click-bait sites are overrun by paid online ads. Some sites label paid content as “sponsored,” making it look like news. Since the invention of the newspaper, paid or sponsored content has been inserted into media content in hopes of capturing the attention of readers and viewers.
Owned media, meanwhile, refers to company websites, an evolving channel for posting controlled content. Marketing was quick to adopt social media, grabbing ownership of the online landing page of virtually every company. But for PR, messages previously intermediated through the press can now communicated directly to stakeholders through these owned channels. The most common use of owned media for PR involves standing up investor relations pages to communicate financial results. Companies like Under Armour, Wells Fargo and Patagonia also post brand-centric stories on their websites, positioning stories that at times cross over into shared and earned media channels
Which brings is to the other two components of the POSE -- Shared and Earned media. While companies expect PR to influence content on these channels, the social media and news media are uncontrolled and uncontrollable. As we will see in case studies throughout this course, these channels also provide more brand lift – and can inflict more brand damage – than Paid and Owned media. Significantly more.
Shared media is defined by media monitoring firm Meltwater as “any and all content posted to social media regarding a brand.” We are talking Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram. While PR must be responsive to social media, the internet also can be a swamp populated with trolls, bots and various other forms of dementors. Check out the Twitter feed for virtually any major company, and every sponsored post draws a stream of negative comments. The social media demands a consumer focus, and can severely punish obvious self-promotion and deceit. Customers on Twitter and Facebook publicize their experiences – good and bad, real and imagined. Sites like Yelp – and every product review link – tap into the power of aggregated customer reviews and third-party endorsements. And when news breaks, the social media becomes an echo chamber, amplifying the coverage and extending the half lives of those headlines.
Earned media, for the most part, represents news coverage. Basically, we are talking here about news stories published in newspapers, broadcast on television, or posted as online content on news websites controlled by news outlets. With the emergence of cable news stations, news has blended with commentary as producers work to fill seemingly endless hours of airtime. PR would refer to any mention of a company, cause or candidate in the news as earned media.
During a recent webinar, Simpson cited internal Under Armour research estimating that earned media was 88% more effective than paid content in lifting brand familiarity. That finding is in line with our research, which has isolated breaking news coverage as far and away the most influential media in terms of driving shifts in awareness and attention, shaping consumer perceptions, and influencing brand consideration and purchase intent.
Let's take a look at what that means for Under Armour. Based on daily brand tracking conducted by online polling firm YouGov, awareness of the UnderArmour brand has doubled over the past decade, and about 80% of U.S. adult consumers would now say they have heard of the sportswear brand. On any given day, about 10 percent of people would say they heard something positive about the company, while less than one percent would report hearing something negative. Stories that people hear or see -- in the news, online and in personal conversations -- are what drives that buzz.
In February 2017, though, buzz about Under Armour spiked sharply negative. Founder and CEO Kevin Plank during a CNBC interview praised then-President Donald Trump for his pro-business stands, declaring Trump a real asset for the nation. At the time, moves by the White House to ban travel to America from Muslim-majority countries were polarizing Americans.
The backlash was immediate, both from consumers and the company's star athletes. As Fortune reported, basketball star Stephen Curry, a longtime Under Armour endorser, threatened to end his relationship with the company. Actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson called Plank’s words “divisive,” while ballet icon Misty Copeland, featured in the company’s women’s clothing campaigns, openly disagreed with the CEO's comments.
Here's a PR Moneyball version of that mini-crisis. In the chart above, negative consumer buzz is depicted by the grey line. When that line dips down, more people are hearing something negative about the company. The blue line reflects negative brand impressions, and again, a downward dip means more people have a negative impression of the brand. The green line gauges brand consideration. If it drops, fewer people say they would consider Under Armour for their next sportswear purchase.
Remember our Functional - Tactical - Strategic framework? Buzz is functional. Brand perceptions are tactical. Consideration, which leads to sales, is strategic.
OK, back to our story. From a PR perspective, how did Under Armour respond? Paid. Earned. Shared. Owned. The company took out a full-page ad in the hometown Baltimore Sun to clarify Plank's stance on President Trump and immigration. Paid media.
The CEO's letter opposing the Trump travel ban, endorsing equal rights and calling for a reinvigoration of American manufacturing was picked up in coverage published by news outlets around the country. Earned media.
Meanwhile, Plank's comments had sparked a backlash on social media, where the #boycottUnderArmour began trending on Twitter. Shared media.
Under Armour quickly responded, posting a definitive statement: "We engage in policy, not politics." Owned media.
For Under Armour, Plank's embrace of the Trump administration's pro-business and pro-America stance at the time appeared to be motivated more by concerns about production than politics. The company had just debuted its Made in America line a month earlier. Ultimately, the mini-crisis lasted about six months. During that period, brand perception scores marked their lowest point in two years, and purchase consideration dropped by about 12 percent.
But for Plank, and Under Armour, the story was far from over.
A timeless tale
During an interview a few years back with the Washington Post, Plank spun a familiar story about the early days of his start-up company. A former University of Maryland football player, Plank had started the sports apparel business in his grandmother's row house in the trendy Georgetown neighborhood. He lived upstairs, the sales office was in the living room, and inventory was stored in the basement, where "The Price is Right" television game show seemed to always be blaring in the background.
Long story short, Plank's base layer shirts and compression shorts were a hit with college and professional athletes, and -- as it turns out -- Hollywood. In 1999, the Under Armour brand was featured in the sports movie Any Given Sunday, taking a star turn with Jamie Foxx and Al Pacino. While most brands would pay dearly for a featured product placement in a hit movie, Plank simply did not have the cash flow to give his clothing away.
"I’m looking around Grandma’s basement - yelling turn down The Price is Right - thinking we have a big order on the line," Plank said in the Washington Post interview, recalling his conversations with the film's producers. "It’s a little know fact, but with Oliver Stone and Any Given Sunday, for all the exposure that we got from Cameron Diaz to Jamie Foxx’s jockstrap with the Under Armour logo in the center of it, that was something they paid over $40,000 for all the product that they bought from us."
But by late 2019, after building Under Armour into a $5 billion brand, Plank was out as CEO. As the #MeToo movement emerged, news reports surfaced that Under Armour management had enabled a locker-room environment to flourish, with employees charging strip club visits to corporate credit cards. Vague news reports surfaced of a "problematic" relationship between Plank and an MSNBC anchor. In its core business, Under Armour was criticized for maintaining a focus on performance athletes while competing brands were building sales in the leisure wear space.
So what's next for Under Armour? That is a story that Blake Simpson wanted to tell. Most retail websites are essentially shopping portals dominated by links to company products. The Under Armour landing page, in contrast, is headlined by links to stories.
Stephan Curry, who threatened to leave Under Armour over Plank's ties to the Trump administration, is now the face of a branded product line. The Under Armour newsroom, typically a repository for press releases, looks more like an online storyboard, featuring downloads of images and videos.
Judging by her Nashville TedX talk, Simpson would be the first to acknowledge emerging challenges in telling those stories. Audiences have become passive, polarized -- and largely inattentive and indiscriminate -- consumers of news and information. The news media, meanwhile, has lost its monopoly on trust.
"We have a problem," Simpson said as she opened her TedX talk. "We live in a time where we have access to too much information. And when it comes to the role the media plays in sharing this information, it's important that we know who we can trust. It's important that we're able to discern fact from fiction."
Meanwhile, Under Armour sales were up 35 percent in the first three months of its current fiscal year, and a restructuring is being led by new CEO Patrik Frisk.
Simpson, it seems, had some good stories yet to tell. Unfortunately for Under Armour, she left in December 2022 to join Adtalem Global Education as chief communication officer.
Kudos to NC State grad Emma Self for her work on this case study.
Here's a deeper dive into storytelling PR
and the state of the media.
Watch Blake Simpson's TedX talk here:
What do you take away from this?