SOCAP International

A Crisis of Olympic Proportions

Under Armour turned a potential brand debacle into a success story with the help of social media.

The Turnaround: Remaining Positive

When the poor performance of the U.S. Olympic Speedskating Teams was anecdotally linked to Under Armour’s performance-enhancing uniforms the skaters wore, the company quickly mobilized:

  • Executives never pointed fingers; instead they reaffirmed their support of the teams.
  • It sent people to Sochi to work with the speedskaters and resolve the issues with their suits.
  • It avoided the ongoing discussion about who or what was to blame and instead used positive statements from those affiliated with the teams.
  • The company enlisted its sponsored athletes as influencers, who defended the brand on social media without mentioning the controversy.
  • Before the end of the games, it announced an eight-year extension of its sponsorship of U.S. speedskating through 2022.

Breaking: USSpeedskating submits request to switch suits tothose used in the World Cup. With @JoshRobinson23
Sara Germano (@germanotes) Feb. 14, 2014

Told that the IOC has approved the older Under Armour suits that the US speed skaters want to revert to
Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) Feb. 14, 2014

“If I was Shani, I’d talk to Under Armour and I’d see if I could use my Nike [suit] and put an Under Armour sticker on it.”
—Peter Mueller, former Olympic gold-medal winning speedskater

Shani Davis was heavily favored to win gold at his third Olympics in Sochi in the men’s 1,000-meter speedskating event. Instead he finished eighth. The U.S. Women’s Speedskating Team posted equally dismal results. What was the cause? Everyone quickly pointed their fingers at Under Armour and its new performance-enhancing uniforms.

Under Armour was founded by a University of Maryland football player about 20 years ago, and has since touted its athletic apparel as innovative. Whether wearing Under Armour to the gym, on the gridiron or speedskating, the clothes were designed for comfort and performance-enhancing effects—put simply, keeping athletes warm when the weather is cold, cooler when the temperature is warm or removing sweat off an athlete’s body.

Under Armour has grown into a $2 billion apparel and shoe company, a significant brand in the United States. An important part of its social-media strategy has been to activate its athletes by encouraging and empowering them with a social-media voice around Under Armour’s teams—whether high school, college or at the professional level. It also encourages them to activate their fans, not just by starting the conversations, but by engaging them through social media, including contests with meaningful financial and other rewards.

Extending Its Global Reach

With revenues outside the United States of only about 10%, Under Armour approached the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics last February as a global coming-out-party of sorts to boost its international expansion and brand notoriety. For the first time, Under Armour was the apparel sponsor for the U.S. Olympic Speedskating Teams and had designed what was dubbed the fastest and most aerodynamic speedskating “skin” ever, called the Mach 39.

The Crisis Begins

However, once the games began and the teams started losing their initial events, skaters and some critics began to openly blame the Under Armour high-tech suits, specifically that the vents in the back were actually slowing the skaters down. Overnight, what Under Armour had touted as a game changer in the Mach 39 suit was now being viewed in a negative light.

Under Armour’s identity and brand were largely based on apparel built around athletic-performance wear, and the public accusations attacked the very heart of the brand. The controversy was out there for everyone to see on every media channel—from network and cable TV to national print publications including The Wall Street Journal. Analysts on CNBC discussed the potential ramifications on the brand, Under Armour as a company, its publicly traded stock and the effect this might have on the company’s revenues related to its expansion into the international market.

Under Armour immediately put people on the ground in Sochi to work with the speedskaters, first by patching the vents on the suits and then, when their performance didn’t improve, switching out their suits to an older version. Under Armour executives never pointed fingers at the U.S. teams and adamantly reaffirmed their belief in the teams and their continued efforts to support them in any way possible.

Kevin Haley, the senior vice president of innovation for Under Armour, which has sponsored the U.S. team since 2011, said he was confident the suits were fast, but, in the absence of medal-winning performances, “We’ll move heaven and earth to make them better.”

Although the debate continued throughout the games as to who was to blame for the skaters’ poor showing—the Mach 39 suits or the skaters themselves—Under Armour avoided that discussion. It did, however, forward statements by others, including from the U.S. Speedskating Federation saying it didn’t believe the Under Armour suits were to blame for the teams’ poor showings in Sochi.

Behind the Scenes

What happened behind the scenes, however, was key. Cam Newton, quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, was at Under Armour offices during the Sochi controversy to meet with executives on another subject and expressed his displeasure with the beating his sponsor was taking in the media, and took to social media himself to publicly express his support for Under Armour.

Having built a social-media foundation based on “activation”of its athletes and fans, Under Armour decided to enlist its own sponsored athletes for help, as influencers, by taking to social media and defending the brand without mentioning the speedskating controversy.

Tweets From Athletes

Lindsey Vonn tweeted, “Proud to be an @Under-Armour athlete. I’ve been with them for 8 yrs and they constantly find ways to improve their gear and make me better!”“

Proud to be part of the Under Armour family, great products and support that help make me the best athlete I can be. #IWILL @UnderArmour,” tweeted MichaelPhelps

Clayton Kershaw, a pitcher with the Los Angeles Dodgers tweeted from Spring Training: “Can’t thank @UnderArmour enough for the new gear. Always fun to see what they come up with every year.”

As the Olympics in Sochi continued, the dialog in the media changed from concerns with Under Armour’s brand and the effect Sochi would have on its expansion into the international market to one of a brand standing behind its teams, and its athletes standing behind their brand—crisis turnaround almost complete.

With the Under Armour sponsorship of U.S. speedskating set to expire later in 2014, Under Armour then announced before the end of the Sochi games that it had already agreed to an eight-year sponsorship extension of U.S. speedskating through 2022, which would include outfitting the teams over the course of the next two Winter Olympics.

Under Armour, just like one of its trademarks, “Protect this House,” showed how to do just that— and more—in the wake of a brand and media crisis.

Ferber_Stephen_headshotStephen Ferber is managing partner of Golden Gate BPO Solutions, which he co-founded in 2006. It provides global outsourced contact center and CRM solutions, consulting and vendor management. From 1995-2004, he was a key member of the management team of an outsourced contact center provider that grew from 400 to 14,000 employees worldwide. Ferber is a licensed attorney and CPA with experience that includes business/corporate law, entrepreneurship and executive leadership.