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From underdog to brand powerhouse

How can your brand shake up an industry like Under Armour did for athletic apparel? You can find out from the company’s former branding expert at this year’s IB Expo.

Steve Battista, former senior VP of brand for Under Armour, will deliver the keynote presentation at this year's IB Expo and Conference, Oct. 24 at the Alliant Energy Center.

Steve Battista, former senior VP of brand for Under Armour, will deliver the keynote presentation at this year's IB Expo and Conference, Oct. 24 at the Alliant Energy Center.

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When Steve Battista joined Under Armour as its 19th employee in 2000 as director of corporate communications, little did he know that he would help the startup brand grow from selling four products into a $4.8 billion global business selling 40,000-plus products. 

The Maryland native studied writing and journalism at Towson University, and was working as a sports writer when a college professor submitted a novel manuscript he had written as an undergrad to the prestigious Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.

“I had no idea about the program’s reputation at the time,” the 44-year-old Battista admits. “I thought only doctors and lacrosse players went to Johns Hopkins.”

Battista was accepted and got to work on his novel, which was his passion, but when his novel didn’t go anywhere — “My agent said no one’s buying family dramas right now” — he switched gears. “All along while I was at Johns Hopkins I’d been working in advertising at night, so I transitioned from the journalism side over to the dark side of marketing and PR. I was doing that when a buddy of mine who I’d played high school football with, and who played college football at Maryland, started talking about this guy he’d played football with in college who had this crazy idea for a T-shirt that wouldn’t absorb sweat or moisture and would keep you cool, dry, and light. I helped him with their catalog and then went full-time in 2000 for this little company called Under Armour.”

Expo keynoter

This year’s IB Expo and Conference kicks off with a keynote presentation from Battista, former senior VP of brand for Under Armour, and the man responsible for the sports apparel company’s famous “Protect This House” campaign. Battista’s strategy of building a brand rather than focusing on an emotionless product helped bust through the global leaders such as Nike and Adidas.

In his 17 years with the company, Battista wore many hats, building Under Armour’s marketing, branding, PR, and communications departments, and leading its groundbreaking advertising campaigns. His gritty and compelling marketing — including the award-winning “Protect This House,” “Click Clack,” And “I Will” campaigns — helped propel Under Armour’s rise to become “the sports brand of this generation and the next,” a distinction further substantiated through the company’s partnerships with some of the world’s most accomplished athletes, including Stephen Curry, Jordan Spieth, Michael Phelps, Misty Copeland, and Tom Brady.

“We had the luxury of being really naïve [in the early days at Under Armour] and not knowing that you can’t start an apparel company in the U.S. and go up against a giant like Nike and win,” Battista reflects. “It was a benefit not knowing that failure was a real possibility, and it was great having a Darth Vader to fight against for the first 20 years.

“It was tough, we grinded every single day, but for some reason we never thought it wouldn’t happen,” continues Battista. “Being naïve and not knowing that this shouldn’t happen, we did things our own way and that’s what stood out. That’s what cut through the clutter of the advertising world.”

Never having made a commercial before, and then making it their own way, the “Protect This House” campaign looked so different compared to every athletic apparel company out there. “When the campaign came out people just stared because they didn’t know what to think, but it struck a chord with the kids and the athletes, and that’s why it really broke through,” Battista notes.

Striking that chord is crucial in any branding and marketing a company does, Battista explains. Under Armour had all the science to back up why its shirts were built for performance, but Battista and his colleagues didn’t want to lose their identity in their message.

In fact, when the fledgling company was planning its first commercials, national advertising agencies all pitched how they could show how moisture comes through the fiber and wicks off your body — the scientific stuff. Instead, Battista says Under Armour elected to go in the other direction to tell the story of the brand. “We talked about the hard work and the passion first to excite people and get people asking, ‘What is that? What are those tight T-shirts with the tight sleeves?’ By doing that we got them to our website, where we didn’t have video at the time but we could talk about the technology and how it works.

“You want to be true in all things to your brand and your brand’s voice,” continues Battista, “but secondarily you have to be able to capture and captivate your audience very quickly. You might not have time in an ad or a 15-second pre-roll on YouTube to tell your entire story or showcase your entire product line, but you can get people to come visit your website or brand in other places to get more of your story, and that’s where you really need to be concise and direct and get people with the one line that is of extreme importance to your brand.”


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