Few things unite Canadians like a sale at Canadian Tire, an election for Toronto’s new mayor or the opportunity, sorry Northern Europe and US readers, to remind the world that we are the greatest hockey playing nation on the planet.
And there is no bigger stage than the Winter Olympics to prove that.
But on a stage that attracts hundreds of millions of viewers, rabid fans from every country and the ever-watchful eye of the IOC, you have to be a pretty savvy brand to make a real impact.
The 2014 Olympics in Sochi were no exception. Going into the Games, the media was ablaze with Islamist security concerns and rapping Putin on the knuckles for his human rights record. Talk about a 5-ring circus.
So how does a feisty Challenger brand like Under Armour cut through all that? How do you pick a strategy? How do you ensure a gold medal performance? (Oh yes, I did)
I had the opportunity to sit down with an old friend Corey Friesen, Marketing Director for Under Armour Canada and arguably a guy with one of the coolest gigs in sports marketing. We’ve riffed before about Under Armour at the Super Bowl but this was an entirely different milestone.
HB: So the Olympics hey? That’s taking Under Armour to a whole different level.
CF: It was a natural evolution for us. Our CEO Kevin Plank came back from the London Olympics with a real fire in his belly. Our presence was small and we felt like we weren’t seen as real contenders. Kevin was committed to changing that. If we were going to show up at the Olympics we were going to do it well. Sochi gave us a natural opportunity particularly as US and Canadian athletes were favoured to medal. It became a case of finding athletes and teams that made sense. In short, we were going to do the Olympics properly.
HB : UA Canada chose the Canada Snowboard Team. Can you tell me a little about that?
CF: In many ways, they were a natural fit. A burgeoning sport, some high expectations that they’d do well (they grabbed a Silver and a Bronze) and of course, they were looking for a long-term sponsor. If you’ve ever watched some of the X-Games, snowboarding is very challenging, very physical, very tough. Especially snowboard-cross. For a brand that prides itself on extreme performance, it was perfect. We were able to outfit them with our new outerwear designs and actually create a one-of-a-kind Canada Snowboard uniform. Our uniforms generated a lot of buzz and certainly looked spectacular on the slopes. That was pretty special. Lastly, as an official team sponsor it also gave us the opportunity to do dedicated – and completely credible – Olympic advertising too.
HB: The spot you did for the Olympics was pretty radical. You were certainly tugging hard on some very strong national emotions.
CF: <Laughs> Well you never fail in Canada if you can connect with the DNA of the average Canadian. And that’s always gonna be hockey. We worked with our friends over at studio m on the concept and they really delivered. We wanted to highlight just how physically and mentally challenging snowboarding and snowboard-cross is and, especially at the Olympics, how national pride is on the line. Using footage from the 1972 Summit Series just dialed that emotion up. The classic Foster Hewitt voiceover, the storied and epic battle between Canada and Russia, it’s goosebump stuff. Studio m suggested calling it “Cold War” which was the perfect title.
HB: You did more than just the commercial though, didn’t you?
CF: We did. We were able to get 72’ Summit Series legend Paul Henderson to create a personalized video for each member of the Canada Snowboard team. We then delivered that to them when they arrived in Sochi. These athletes are at the top of their game and many are barely in their 20’s but to get a personalized message from Paul Henderson, that was kinda cool.
HB: Sochi wasn’t all plain sailing for the Under Armour brand though. You had that much-publicized episode with the US Speedskating team too. Anything you can share about that?
CF: Too right. It did get kinda bumpy for a while and the marketing media certainly made a lot of noise about it. In many ways it’s a brutal and great story. A top secret product development group creates this Mach-39 suit. Working with engineers at Lockheed-Martin we develop a next-gen uniform and then, sadly, the athletes aren’t winning. We had to pull out all the stops. CEO Kevin Plank gets involved and, as we’ve gotten credit for, we don’t shy away from answering the tough questions and trying to come up with alternatives. I mean, there’s a whole lot riding on getting this sorted. We come through it – and this is the part that I personally love and that didn’t get as much press coverage – and just when you think UA and Team USA will part ways, we double-down and extend our sponsorship through 2022.I loved the way that Kevin Plank put it “These colours don’t run”. Brilliant.
We’re an athlete-based company first and foremost. We’re in business to make them better and to keep looking for new ways to help them win. What kind of brand would we be if we parted ways now? That spoke volumes to me – and to Wall Street, because on the day of the 2022 announcement, our stock jumped $10. People notice how brands act. I was really proud of UA for the way we handled it.
HB: So now you’re a bona-fide Olympic brand, what else have you guys got cooking?
CF: Well there’s the Summer Olympics in Rio in 2016 and we’re going to be there as well. Summer Olympics are a harder challenge for UA because they really are a Nike cornerstone. Every athlete – except perhaps Usain Bolt and his Puma’s – are wearing that swoosh thing.
Last year we signed on to sponsor the US gymnastics team providing all their uniforms and apparel for Rio. That’s pretty big news. Outside of track & field, gymnastics is a signature Summer Olympic sport. We’re following through on Kevin Plank’s mandate to keep challenging and keep growing.
HB: All this growth, all this high-profile exposure, do you guys still contend you’re a Challenger brand?
CF: Of course. We always will be. We’ve never equated size with being a Challenger. For us, it has always been an attitude. It guides the sports we go into, the athletes we chose and, like the US Speedskating example, the types of relationship we wanna have with those athletes. Do we want to be the most successful sports apparel brand in the world? Sure but we’ll do that by not compromising the attitude that’s gotten us this far.
HB: Thanks Corey. Last question, any chance I could get some UA tickets for the Woman’s Beach Volleyball in Rio?
CF: Get in line buddy.
If you want to watch the Paul Henderson video that UA commissioned for Sochi, you can find it here. It’ll only be up temporarily. The password is: files
This article is republished with permission courtesy Hilton Barbour.