Under Armour kicks off 2020 brand campaign at Baltimore summit that includes Michael Phelps and Bryce Harper
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Under Armour kicks off 2020 brand campaign at Baltimore summit that includes Michael Phelps and Bryce Harper

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BALTIMORE - Under Armour unveiled a new brand campaign Tuesday in Baltimore with a theme of overcoming adversity, debuting "The Only Way Is Through" during a summit of athletes, trainers, social media "influencers" and others from around the world.

The campaign features some of the biggest names in the Baltimore-based sports apparel maker's roster of athletes - Stephen Curry, Tom Brady, Michael Phelps and Kelley O'Hara - as well as a nod to Baltimore with an appearance by City College High School's boys basketball team.

"We made a very clear commitment to being athletic performance," Under Armour CEO Patrik Frisk told event participants. "That's what we're going to do as a brand. We have some other brands that we compete against that might not be as dedicated to that as we are going to be."

Frisk, who took over as CEO on Jan. 1 from Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, was referring to the brand's divergence from some rivals in emphasizing performance over fashion, a move some have criticized.

Phelps, the most decorated Olympic swimmer of all time and a Baltimore native, helped kick off the campaign, telling participants how as an 11-year-old, he and coach Bob Bowman set a goal of swimming in multiple Olympics.

"The word 'can't' was removed from my vocabulary," Phelps said. "There was no 'I'm tired, I'm hurting.' It was seven days a week each year, for five years. No Christmases, no Thanksgivings, no birthdays off. As we would say, I was putting deposits into the bank."

He was followed on stage by three more Under Armour athletes, world champion skier Lindsey Vonn, Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper and Natasha Hastings, a track and field sprinter in training for this summer's Olympics in Tokyo. Each described how the new campaign related to their lives.

Vonn overcame multiple injuries. Hastings, a new mother, said she initially thought of her pregnancy as a setback to training, but found ways to adapt her routine before and after her son's birth. After leaving high school early for junior college baseball, Harper said, he was so overwhelmed he almost gave up, but when he tried to return to school he was told it was too late - he'd already tested out.

"You fight every day, no matter what you're going through," Harper said. "There's people in this world that have a lot bigger problems than me going 0-for-4 in one night. Any day that you can push through to the next day and get through it, then do it."

Frisk said Under Armour has been working on the campaign for six months, including testing the message with consumers.

"This is not just about right now. This is about all of 2020 and all the way into 2021," he said. "We've never been able to do that as a brand."

The campaign's theme reflects not only a training mantra, but also what the company is going through.

The $5.2 billion athletic brand has been struggling for several years to boost sluggish sales, particularly in the United States, its largest market. In November, the company confirmed its accounting methods are being investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department.

Shares on Under Armour were up 4.7% on Tuesday, closing at $21.12 each, after Lone Pine Capital, one of the nation's top hedge funds disclosed in a federal filing that it took a 6.7% stake in the company.

Under Armour used this week's so-called "Human Performance Summit" to launch the branding campaign along with products and technologies coming out this year, including Iso-Chill, a technology to pull heat away from the body, the UA Infinity Bra, cleats that conform to the foot, and UA Meridian, leggings designed to feel soft.

The company invited 175 people to the summit from around the world for an all-expenses-paid week of workout sessions, product reveals and meet-and-greets with big-name athletes.

Tashi Skervin, 28, a London fitness trainer who runs in Under Armour Sonic shoes, said she and about a dozen other "influencers" who had past relationships with the company were flown in from the United Kingdom, staying at the Four Seasons. She and others started the morning with a jog around the Inner Harbor. She was looking for motivation from elite athletes and workout tips.

"I can take it with me to use in my everyday life, but then also to give to others, whether it's my clients or on social media," Skervin said. "I really love Under Armour and their clothing, and now that they've expanded into recovery and then sleepwear, it's almost as if they've taken it to the next level. It's bringing the technology that the elites have to the everyday person."

Each participant was sent a travel outfit from the brand's Athlete Recovery line, sweatpants, a T-shirt, and a track jacket, and Under Armour's soon-to-launch next HOVR running shoe, the Machina, which connects to the MapMyRun fitness app.

The company did not say how much it spent on the event.

But one expert compared the summit to creating a trade show, which could be more effective and less costly than attending a large convention or show, which many brands use to make announcements or show off products. Under Armour had relied on CES, the big annual consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, as a platform to launch new products and technologies for the past three years.

With a summit after that early January show, Under Armour is "not competing with all the other brands at CES making a lot of noise," said Ashlene Larson, head of social media for Planit advertising firm. "They've created their own event, like a trade show with one brand vs. a trade show with thousands of brands. It's an opportunity to show off their space and brand and message and story in an environment they can completely control."

The brand also can handpick attendees, including the "influencers" who will have the most impact.

"Brands are really redefining what an influencer means," Larson said. "It doesn't just mean hundreds of thousands of followers. It can be someone who is active in the space with a smaller following."

For a sports brand, that could mean trainers and athletes, whose social posts about a brand can influence people to buy. Yoga apparel maker Lululemon, for instance, gives out clothing to yoga instructors who are active on social media and act as ambassadors.

"This is the first time we have invited a guest list of this magnitude to join us as we launch our biggest innovations for the year for all athletes, across different sport categories," Under Armour said in a statement. "We wanted to host a summit as a way to immerse media and influencers in Under Armour's mission, vision and values."

Visit The Baltimore Sun at www.baltimoresun.com

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