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What Under Armour Learned From Consumers This Year

The Covid-19 pandemic backed apparel and footwear brands alike into a corner earlier this year as the typical trends they had come to expect were thrown off entirely. But with a comprehensive data and decision modeling strategy in hand, companies still had opportunities to take advantage of the new trends that were beginning to take shape throughout the year.

In a session at Saturday’s 2020 MIT Sloan Retail Conference, Dwane Morgan, director of global consumer insights at Under Armour, noted that while the product concept-to-consumer timeline for apparel and footwear typically takes anywhere from 12 to 18 months, the company saw an immediate need that could be filled with a new face mask purpose-built for athletics. Under Armour worked with a third party to create the UA Sportsmask, which was developed and launched only three months into the pandemic and sold out online in less than an hour after launch.

“We’ve seen a big spike in people running outside, and of course with Covid-19 and depending on where you are in the world, you can’t do that unless you have some sort of face covering,” Morgan said. “Being able to create those face masks I think was a very quick [win] for us, seeing what the behavior was, seeing the interest in a product like that, and then being able to react.”

Admitting that this kind of turnaround is difficult to replicate with footwear production, Morgan did indicate that the company has now focused on pivoting existing products so that they aren’t “sitting in a stockroom for a wholesale account where the consumer is not going to be able to get to this year.”

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“We can actually get access to that product to make sure that we can get it out through the the virtual channels through e-comm,” Morgan said.

Under Armour has also leveraged its Connected Fitness offering to generate insights about which customers are working out, as well as how often and when they exercise. Because sneakers typically offer peak performance for a certain number of miles, Under Armour can identify when a consumer should replenish a shoe whose cushioning has worn out, or make other useful recommendations.

“If we know how often somebody is running, we can actually make those recommendations. If you live somewhere, and we know that you run at 6 a.m. every morning…the next time you go run it’s actually going to be dark,” Morgan said, noting the drastic changes that Daylight Savings Time can bring. “We can send you a recommendation about reflective gear that you can be wearing while you’re in that setting. We’re connecting the dots so it’s not just when you’re coming to our website.”

Despite the plethora of data available, the retailer still has to account for the human emotion to get a proper read on shopper behavior.

“One of the challenging things for us is that athletic footwear and apparel is a very emotional category. So a lot of the modeling and things that you think about, that’s based on rational behavior and a lot of behavior in our category is irrational,” Morgan said. “Look at our brand, and some of the signature products. The reason you would pay an athlete that kind of money is not because people say, ‘Oh, this athlete is wearing that shoe, it must be the best technology.’ Usually there’s a relationship to that athlete. When people see that athlete or celebrity, that trumps rational behavior. There’s more of an emotional connection that drives him to make a purchase.”

The athleticwear and footwear firm’s list of sponsored athletes includes top names across all major sports, including NBA superstar Stephen Curry, NFL legend Tom Brady, 23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps and world champion skier Lindsey Vonn, among myriad others.

Curry has been positioned as the face of a new label, with Under Armour launching the Curry Brand late last month to gain traction in basketball sneakers. Last week, the brand introduced its first sneaker, the Curry Flow 8.

Even with some of the world’s most renowned sports figures under its umbrella, Under Armour knows it has to understand more about its athlete customers in order to scale. Morgan says the Baltimore-based firm is trying to get a better read on the high school athlete demographic, particularly since many rising hopefuls have had to deal with the unfortunate result of cancelled sports seasons.

“We’ve done virtual focus groups, and some of them were really somber, because if you think about your high school senior who has thought about and planned and worked their butt off for three years to be the captain and be ready for their senior year and have senior night and all these different milestones, they’re just gone,” Morgan said.

“And it’s not just ‘Okay, well, we’ll do it again in 2021.’ It’s literally gone, and for those kids, those athletes, that’s pretty traumatic. It’s not only losing access to those milestones, in addition to things like prom and graduation, but your teammates and your coaches, which are almost like parent figures to a lot of these youth.”

Morgan noted that understanding these consumers is different and more challenging than identifying the shifts that occurred early in the pandemic, particularly for adults who couldn’t go to the gym and instead opted for virtual workouts at home. Even if that consumer never goes back to the gym, the company can get a better grasp on how they get motivated to work out, while the products they buy haven’t really changed that much, he said.

But for students who played team sports, there are fewer insights available given their future behavior is likely to be different, while a significant portion will have graduated.

Ultimately, as Under Armour seeks to learn more about its customers, particularly during Covid disruption, the customer insights team shares a goal to push stakeholders throughout the company to figure out what questions they have about the consumer, while they figure out the best methodology to solve the issue.

“Sometimes it’s a very quantitative-heavy tool to gain insights,” said Morgan. “Sometimes it’s more qualitative…when you start getting into going to talk about our industry being sometimes irrational. Sometimes you have to spend time with consumers. You might have a smaller sample size, but spending an hour with a dozen consumers sometimes gives you a lot more information than a reaction to a static set of questions for a few thousand.”