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MBPT Spotlight: Under Armour’s Athlete Endorsers Starting to Resonate With Consumers

Nike created a lot of buzz recently with a new 90-second TV commercial titled "Short A Guy" which featured a kid running from place to place joining some major athletes playing their sports like Mike Trout, Andrew Luck, Mia Hamm and Anthony Davis.

Those pro athlete endorsers join the Nike list that includes Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Derek Jeter, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, among others.

Traditionally Nike has led the athletic footwear and apparel categories in signing big-name athletes to endorse its products and to appear in campaigns. However, relative newcomer Under Armour, has been making some strides of its own in signing up key athletes.

The Under Armor list now includes NBA MVP Stephen Curry, three-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, NFL quarterback Cam Newton, young baseball stars Clayton Kershaw, Bryce Harper and Buster Posey, U.S. Open golf champion Jordan Spieth and swimmer Michael Phelps. And to reach women consumers, Under Armor has signed up ballet star Misty Copeland and model Gisele Bundchen, Brady's wife.

Under Armor is not expected to knock Nike off the top of the mountain anytime soon when it comes to revenue, but it is making an impact and some inroads with consumers.

The Brand Keys Customer Loyalty & Engagement Index as of mid-June ranked Nike first in the minds of consumers in the athletic footwear category, but Under Armor was ranked a surprising fifth – one spot below Adidas and one spot above Reebok, both of which have been around much, much longer.

Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys, the New York-based brand and customer loyalty and engagement consultancy, believes Under Armor’s showing in the 40,000 person nation poll is impressive for a company that has been in business for less than 20 years.

“Under Armor is building the brand and gaining tremendous emotional engagement among consumers,” he says. “When a young brand, under 20 years old, starts to show up on our consumer emotional engagement lists — and they need a large number of mentions to be included — it’s always a good sign for a brand.”

Nike is still the king with $30.1 billion in overall annual revenue, compared to Under Armour’s $3.6 billion. But Nike has been around since it 1964, while Under Armour opened its doors in 1996.

Among the Brand Keys Customer Loyalty & Engagement Index’s top athletic footwear companies. Under Armour is the youngest company.

Following Nike the list in order includes New Balance (founded in 1906), Skechers (1992), Adidas (1949), Under Armour (1996), Reebok (1895), Mizuno (1906), Asics (1949) and Brooks (1914).

“I don’t think Under Armour will be a flash in the pan,” Passikoff says. “They are doing all the right things they need to do to reach customers and engage them with their brand. They are getting their merchandise into more stores and they are signing big name athlete endorsers, many of who are young than Nike’s.”

Passikoff says Jordan “has been a Nike spokesman forever” and Woods’ days as a top golfer on the tour are waning. Bryant will play maybe one more season. And while James is still arguably the best player in the NBA, Curry is younger and in addition to being named regular season MVP, led his team to an NBA Championship.

Passikoff says Under Armour’s recently signed athlete endorsers are for the most part younger. This could be one of the reasons why Nike did its latest commercial featuring some younger athletes like Trout, Luck and Davis.

And just how important keeping a top athlete in the fold as an endorser can be you need to look no further than Nike signing a 10-year, $300 million deal with Durant, not only to keep him on board with Nike but also so he didn’t defect to Under Armour.

Consumers buy athletic shoes and apparel based on buzz and professional star athletes help give those brands buzz, Passikoff says. “A top athlete spokesman can give a brand a huge edge over its competition,” he adds.

Some other athletic brands like Adidas and Reebok have gone more towards the entertainer endorsement route. While Adidas does have Derrick Rose of the NBA Chicago Bulls as an endorser, they have recently signed more entertainers.

A new campaign promoting the Adidas Originals line is featuring emerging entertainers along with Pharrell Williams. And Reebok in the past has promoted its brand in deals with Scarlett Johansson and 50 Cent.

Some athletic shoe brands, like Adidas, have spent too much time talking about the quality of their shoes, Passikoff says, while consumers seem to care more about what athletes are wearing them and endorsing them. Thus the growing popularity of Under Armour in the Brand Keys polls.

Don’t expect Under Armour to catch Nike in sales anytime soon, but in the battle for athlete endorsers, Under Armour is giving Nike a run for their money, and that could allow Under Armour to close the gap quicker.

Nike did sign three of the NFL’s top rookie players entering the league this fall in Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Melvin Gordon, but don’t count out Under Armour.

The company has come a long way in 19 years to become the biggest threat to Nike in the sports footwear and apparel category. And at 42 years old, Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank has many more years ahead of him to continue to be a thorn in Nike’s side as he grows his company’s business.