Former football player, Kevin Plank, wanted to create a better T-shirt – one that would wick perspiration away from the body. After starting his company camped out in his grandmother’s town home and experimenting with many different fabric blends, he has gone on to create a billion dollar athletic brand called Under Armour.
As successful as the brand has become, 90% of sales are still in North America so, in an effort to break out into the global market, Under Armour decided to sponsor the USA Speed Skating Team at the recent Sochi Olympics. So keen was Under Armour on making their global launch a success, they spent one million dollars researching a new racing suit for the speed skating team, putting it through wind tunnel tests at a military aircraft test site. The suits were made of five different types of material and were so superior that USA speed skating officials, fearing they might be copied by other countries, withheld the suits from the racers until just before the Olympics. The skaters got their first peek at the Mach 39 racing suits in early 2014 and only got to test them at a high altitude training camp in Callalbo, Italy just two weeks before the Olympics.
The first real test of the suits would come early at the Olympics when Shawn Davis, the current world record holder and defending Olympic gold medalist in the 1000 meter, took to the ice. Mr. Davis could do no better than a disappointing seventh place. Similar results in other events soon followed and it didn’t take long for the Americans to start blaming their new, Mach 39 racing suits. As the Olympics wore on some American skaters reverted to their old Nike skating suits while others had last minute modifications made to the Mach 39 but nothing could turn the American fortunes. By the end of the games it was the worst showing of American speed skating since the inception of the Winter Olympics. With such high expectations, the attention on the Under Armour brand was all negative.
What can we learn from Under Armour’s experience and potentially apply to our new product launches?
- Opinions of new products form quickly: One or two poor results and the athletes were abandoning the suits. Research shows people’s opinions are formed quickly. You don’t get a second chance to win their loyalty
- Pick your test clients well: Under Armour developed a winning suit but they didn’t put it on a winning team. Make sure your new product is placed with customers where its full potential can be experienced.
- You can’t control everything but you should try: withholding the suits before the Olympics left doubts in the skater’s minds when their results did not meet expectations. It is important to work closely with your clients early on to ensure they are using the product properly and manage their expectations.
The Under Armour product launch strategy got their product blamed for team USA’s poor showings. In reality, the decision to prepare the team at a high altitude, outdoor skating track in Italy when the Olympics where held at sea level at an indoor facility is baffling and most likely the cause of team USA’s poor showing. Under Armour may need to do another lap before their global brand takes off.
The Wall Street Journal Mon. Tues Feb 18th Sara Germano