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.

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.”

(Continued)

 

Revving up

Following Under Armour’s 20th anniversary, Battista left the company to pursue new challenges, co-founding the brand Revtown, an online clothier featuring premium denim made with stretchable fibers for a fraction of the cost of designer jeans, with Henry Stafford, another former Under Armour exec.

For someone like Battista, who made a career in branding and marketing but never took a marketing class in college, his time at Under Armour was the training that provided business lessons he’s still putting to use today.

“I have a Master of Arts, which is one of the hardest degrees to find any kind of gainful employment in,” Battista jokes. “We had a lot of victories [with Under Armour] and definitely were able to learn from those, but man, you learn a lot more from the losses and narrow misses.

“The mistake I don’t think I’ll ever see again — at least I shouldn’t because we definitely learned in the hard way — is growing up with your brand and losing sight of the core consumer. Particularly after having such a tight focus on our core consumer and open eyes and ears to what they wanted and needed, and then believing that all of a sudden we knew what was cool, that we didn’t have to talk to people or do the research or listen to the consumer — that was a big awakening. None of my new brands will ever make that mistake again.”

Revtown actually came about because Battista was listening to the consumer during photo shoots with athletes while still at Under Armour.

“Doing photo shoot after photo shoot with athletes for so many years, and then trying to do some lifestyle shots and saying, ‘Here, wear some jeans,’ and the athletes replying, ‘I don’t wear jeans because they don’t fit my legs or my waist’ because they’re in the weight room all the time and have strong legs, explains Battista. “Knowing that from a former life was able to inform how we could make denim jeans with stretch in them that would fit people who are active and in the weight room. That was a big aha in terms of building this denim line for guys who need to have a little stretch, who didn’t want to have to size up at the waist and then pull it in with a belt. And it was as simple as just listening to the core consumer.”

During Battista’s IB Expo keynote presentation, he will reveal how your brand can sidestep the normal marketing strategy to win the hearts and minds of customers. You will learn how to build and protect your brand through emotional campaigns, amazing brand experiences, genuine product placement, and savvy digital marketing. Participants will also take away a renewed appreciation for the power of strong branding and authenticity in marketing, and in allowing your organization’s story to dictate your brand’s message in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

The keynote breakfast costs just $50 per person or $325 for a table of eight. Reservations can be made online at MadisonBusinessExpo.com/keynote-breakfast.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.