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Betting on the underdog – Under Armour’s unconventional approach to sponsorship

Performance sportswear brand Under Armour has managed to double its brand awareness score each year for the past two years, and has done so with a clear, stated strategy of "not overspending on marketing". At the core of this strategy has been its bold decision to align itself with sporting 'underdogs'.

Disrupting sports sponsorship

Speaking at the launch of the brand’s rugby campaign, Under Armour's head of marketing for EMEA, Christopher Carroll, said that Under Armour aims to combat the "samey" nature of sports sponsorship, which has become "a little predictable with the same names promoting products".

The immediate benefits are clear. Under Armour avoids bidding battles to win sponsorship deals with the most recognized athletes in the world, and doesn’t see itself relegated to the position of being just one of many brands championed by a single athlete. After all, fighting the likes of Nike and Adidas for attention on their own turf is no mean feat. But Under Armour’s approach runs deeper than this.

Brand narrative

Sponsoring lesser-known athletes isn't just about avoiding excessive spend, but also about creating a strong brand narrative. Under Armour is now better placed to tell a compelling story with its marketing because it can afford to be selective in choosing its partners. It can collaborate with athletes whose stories, Carroll says, "mirror our own… as a new challenger and underdog in the sportswear category."

As well as opting to partner with up-and-coming stars like Manchester United’s Memphis Depay and golfer Jordan Spieth, Under Armour is promoting its unique HeatGear fabric (with anti-odor technology), with a campaign fronted by Welsh Rugby’s Jamie Roberts and England’s James Haskell, to capitalize on the buzz surrounding the Rugby World Cup.

Broader benefits

By handpicking athletes who offer more than just A-list credentials, Under Armour has been able to interact more closely with its audience. For example, the brand uses the hashtag #EarnYourArmour to encourage fitness enthusiasts to share their workouts – and deftly took this conversation further by engaging Welsh Rugby Union fullback Leigh Halfpenny to send real-time messages to participating hashtag users suggesting motivational physical challenges.

Through its strategy of nurturing its association with hard-working athletes, and attempting to engage its customers in active and direct conversation with up-and-coming sports personalities, Under Armour is making significant gains: its full-year 2014 global sales grew by 32% compared to 2013. This growth demonstrates the value of a more niche, personalized approach to sponsorship and marketing – and perhaps shows that having the biggest budget isn't the only route to success.

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