Before the coronavirus pandemic, Under Armour already faced a long comeback road.
Not only was the Baltimore-based sports apparel brand struggling with slumping sales, steep losses and a decimated stock price, but the federal government had launched an investigation into its accounting practices that even threatens to tarnish the company’s founder Kevin Plank.
Then along came the coronavirus, disrupting both the economy and sports by forcing stores to shut down temporarily, putting millions of people out of work and keeping athletes away from fields and out of gyms.
Under Armour hardly could have picked a worse time to restore its fading brand.
But the pandemic also may offer Under Armour a unique opportunity to rebuild, which is important to Baltimore since the company employs 2,400 people between its headquarters in Locust Point and its other offices, stores and distribution centers. And some analysts say Under Armour is taking advantage of the economic slowdown to reset and that they see signs of progress.
“They will be far better prepared for 2021 because of this crisis than if it hadn’t happened,” said Sam Poser, an analyst with Susquehanna Financial Group, who expects sales to hit bottom by year’s end. “Now that expectations are lower, there are a lot of changes that can happen under the cover of the pandemic.”
Poser, a longtime critic of Under Armour, and others say the company is working to solidify its position as a premium performance brand. It’s investing in digital and e-commerce with a newly designed website. It’s aiming to better engage customers through social media.
Some efforts were underway before 2020, but others have been accelerated because of the health crisis.
For example, Under Armour is building brand awareness with a series of YouTube fitness videos that the apparel maker’s athletes and fitness trainers lead from their living rooms. New videos have been added on a regular basis, one featuring an at-home runner’s body-weight workout, another taking viewers through a circuit workout, no equipment required.
“I think its smart,” said Christopher D. Burns, a marketing consultant and founder of ARCH-USA, a website dedicated to the sneaker industry. “It’s a great strategy. It’s not clear if it’s hitting the mark, but it’s a start.”
After years of rapid growth, Burns added, Under Armour now appears to be taking the time during the pandemic to distinguish itself.
He also believes Under Armour may have found a niche in recently adding rookie WNBA stars Bella Alarie, Kaila Charles and Tyasha Harris to its roster of athlete endorsers. By highlighting the women and their fitness routines through social media channels, the athletes could help reach girls and young women in a niche fitness market ignored by some of the bigger brands.
Market leader Nike, he said, hasn’t gone far enough to highlight female athletes, while Under Armour has added to a roster that already includes stock car racing driver Hailie Deegan, heptathlon champion Georgia Ellenwood, and world champion track and field sprinter Natasha Hastings.
“It seems the brand has begun to understand that they need to lay a foundation and build upon that as opposed to hopping through strategies to capture segments,” Burns said.
Picking its lane
Jennifer Saibil, who covers consumer goods for financial services website and adviser Motley Fool, said she noticed signs of a potential turnaround during the earlier days of the pandemic.
Under Armour’s reluctance to join the athleisure bandwagon may have been seen as a misstep, but the brand’s doubling down on performance may be helping it during the pandemic, she said. Customers who are exercising outdoors or at home have reconnected with the brand through virtual social events and virtual fitness programs.
Despite the loss of sales at temporarily shuttered stores during a difficult second quarter, “a lot of the underlying improvements will still hold in the future, such as leaning into digital and becoming a more agile company,” she said. “They have been trying to grow their community, (in the way that) Nike and Lululemon have been successful in creating a community of fitness-minded people who gather around their brand.”
Poser, who has criticized Under Armour’s hasty growth in discount retail channels, upgraded the stock from negative to neutral in an Aug. 3 report, saying, “it appears to us that the company is (finally) throwing out the entire kitchen sink in order to be well positioned for 2021.”
Much of that has to do with repairing a damaged brand by elevating it in the minds of consumers, he said.
The company may be able to do that, Poser said, by pulling back on its presence at moderately priced retailers such as Kohl’s, Famous Footwear, DSW, TJ Maxx and Marshalls until it can clearly differentiate the products it sells there from those sold at more upscale retailers and sporting goods stores.
Stores such as Dick’s Sporting Goods and Foot Locker also offer a better connection to Under Armour’s target customer, those who primarily buy sports apparel for sports or fitness as opposed to a fashion choice, he said. The brand also needs to roll out products that mix in style with technical attributes.
Other positive steps have included improving the digital platform and reducing excess inventory, which can hurt profit margins when goods must be sold at a discount. Under Armour acted quickly in the earliest days of the pandemic to cancel 30% of factory orders for the second half of the year.
Holding it back
For Under Armour, though, it’s not smooth sailing ahead by any means. As the pandemic continues to stunt the economy and consumer spending, the company’s sales are expected to be down as much as 25% this year. During the quarter ended June 30, with company-owned outlets and other stores selling Under Armour products closed, the brand lost $183 million.
The company faces other pitfalls, too.
Last month officials with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said they have escalated an investigation into potentially unlawful accounting methods, alerting Plank, who stepped aside as CEO at the end of last year but remains executive chairman and brand chief, and another top executive of a possible filing of a civil case. If violations are found, the company and those executives could face financial penalties and individuals could be barred from serving as officers or directors of public companies.
And on Wednesday, UCLA filed a lawsuit against Under Armour seeking $200 million in damages, alleging the company breached a $280 million contract to outfit its student-athletes. Under Armour, which said Thursday that it will fight the lawsuit, had said in June that it discontinued the UCLA partnership after paying for marketing benefits it had not received during the coronavirus shutdown.
Under Armour did not comment last week on rebuilding efforts. But Patrik Frisk, its president and CEO, said last month that current efforts to build the brand and streamline costs will better position the company to handle shifts in consumer behavior once global markets stabilize.
During an earnings call last month, Frisk also said the company is looking ahead to opening more branded stores and building on product successes, such as the top-selling $150 HOVR Machina running shoe.
Frisk said Under Armour has been paying close attention to shifts to at-home and outdoor training, running and fitness during the coronavirus-related shutdowns and looked for ways to make stronger digital connections with consumers. Initiatives such as creating content targeted to consumers’ interests and posting influencer workout videos have helped boost its digital community.
“We believe that consumers are gaining more consistent clarity about who we are and what we stand for: a human performance company with products designed to make you better,” Frisk said.
Burns, for one, believes some of the new initiatives are smart but often fall short. Growing sales online and at branded stores is important but difficult without a presence in other retail stores where customers can become familiar with the brand and its sizing. And Under Armour still has little store shelf presence in many parts of the country, he said.
The brand struggles to create the buzz necessary to compete against the likes of Nike and Adidas, despite successes with HOVR running shoes and signature lines by basketball star Stephen Curry and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Poser said.
He has been encouraged, however, by what he has heard recently from management.
The company wants to “strengthen and in some cases earn back that consumer promise one innovative product per at a time,” Frisk said last month.
“This is moving in the right direction for Under Armour, and we hope they get there,” Poser said. “But the jury is out.”