A titter runs through the packed SXSW ballroom. There are few in the brand world that would claim that their brand has a better chance of surviving the future than Nike, and yet the arrogant man on stage just did so with a sideways grin.
Kevin Plank, founder of Under Armour, is holding the crowd raptured. Barely drawing breath as he answers questions about how he got to where he is today. Through a Baltimore drawl, the passion he has for sport – and the business built from this passion, is clear.
He takes us on quite the journey, from crying at a toll-booth because he didn’t have the $2 needed to drive through, to starting the company in his grandmother’s basement, to proudly proclaiming “if our logo shows up on something it better be the best”. It’s the perfect rags-to-riches story, it inspires awe and yet unlike your usual ‘battler-done-good’, Plank still doesn’t seem terribly likeable.
But somehow, I don’t think that bothers him.
Under Armour is often touted as an ‘overnight success story’ but he reminds us that 20 years is hardly overnight. With over 160 million users, 14,000 employees and 23 consecutive quarters of over 20% growth, overnight story or not, he’s doing something right.
What does he put Under Armour’s success down to?
He believes that the culture of the business is the brand and vice versa. This culture must be carefully curated to protect the brand at all costs. For Under Armour this means defining and nurturing a voice that informs everything from the products it makes, to the people it hires and the athletes it dresses.
“Any great brand is an aggregator. We’re trusting we have the best people, doing the best possible work.”
He calls everyone he works and collaborates with a team-mate, and his company vision reads something like a quarterbacks half-time play scrawled on a white board. It’s clear that this former college footballer is running his billion dollar company much like a college football team.
He let’s us in on few of the defining features of Under Armour culture.
- Over promise and deliver.
- Dictate and deliver.
- Always find a way.
If brands are a series of chapters, this next chapter of Under Armour is all about connected fitness. The latest iteration a 24/7 real-time barometer of fitness and health, Record was built from the insight that humans know more about what is happening inside our cars than we do our own bodies.
Plank tells us “Data is the new oil” which is why the company’s engineering staff has gone from 20 to more than 500, including 350 app developers, in less than three years.
But crucially, he doesn’t believe culture is something you set and forget. “We’re still defining the company we want to be.”
Bob Safian, editor in chief of Fast Company, who is interviewing Plank on stage, asks him what kind of company he wants Under Armour to be.
Just like a well-versed quarterback, Plank replies, “I like being defined as a performance company because I think it is completely unlimiting”.
The question is now, is this limitless definition enough to take on sportswear giant Nike, and win.