underarmour's website showing sneakers
Under Armour has begun incorporating user-generated content, such as customer videos, reviews and social media posts into its product listings. — UnderArmour.com

Under Armour is waking up to a harsh reality.

Shoppers don’t really care what the brand says about its products. The opinions of their peers and the athletes donning Under Armour’s performance-driven sportswear hold infinitely more weight, said Patrick Grissinger, senior digital product manager, global e-commerce. So its messaging will increasingly reflect that sometimes-inconvenient truth.

In keeping with a ‘power-to-the-people’ shift, reshaping marketing across business sectors, Under Armour is testing user-generated content (UGC), like shopper reviews, on its e-commerce site to “help tell our story,” Grissinger said during a March 2019 mobile growth panel discussion held in New York City by digital commerce platforms Mobify and Astound Commerce.

The company is sprinkling into its online product listings customer ratings, reviews, images and videos, such as Instagram stories of shoppers donning its products, as well as feedback from its “wear testers,” which range from the athletes that test Under Armour items pre-launch to spokespeople like Dwayne Johnson and Stephen Curry.

UGC —broadly defined as ratings, reviews, product photos, videos or other commentary written by consumers about purchased products or items they’re considering, is the covetable “social validation,” as Grissinger calls it, that’s increasingly edging out company-fed marketing spiel in winning over consumers these days.

UGC is also a way for Under Armour to better demonstrate peer and influencer guidance, which is increasingly important to consumers looking for inspiration and validation to make a purchase decision.

In the athleisure wear space, Under Armour goes up against brands such as Nike and Adidas, “key competitors in terms of fashion, innovative experiences and sustainability,” according to a recent note from investment research firm Jane Hali & Associates. “[They] continue to speak to their consumers, especially women, through their product, working with influencers, store experiences and localization within communities.”

Power to the people

Letting real-world Under Armour devotees speak for the brand is about showing, rather than telling, shoppers the value of a HOVR running shoe or a Curry 6 pair of sneakers, for example, Grissinger told CO—.

Under Armour’s move to elevate the voices of shoppers comes as consumers increasingly turn to peer and influencer content to get inspired and to make a decision, he said. “There is a balance we have to achieve now, between our voice that speaks to why the product exists, and our customers’ voice, which is much more trained on how it meets the needs of real consumers”

It comes against the backdrop of the “power shift” from marketers to consumers amid the “democratization of knowledge” birthed by the internet, he said.

Amazon helped reset the marketing landscape by pioneering online customer reviews and product ratings. Today, they're commonplace for every conceivable product and service, be it a coffeemaker review on Amazon, a hotel rating on TripAdvisor or a restaurant review on Yelp. It’s all amounted to, for better or worse, as in a disgruntled shopper Tweet, word-of-mouth on steroids that’s spread on the vast community and nonstop chatter of the web.

Grissinger, stressing the dominant role Amazon — and, by extension, ratings and reviews — plays at the outset of the consumer-buying journey, cited data revealing that 49% of product searches today begin on the nation’s biggest online shopping site.

Meanwhile, online reviews and recommendations from friends and family in the active evaluation phase of the customer decision journey now rank as the most influential touch points, he noted, citing McKinsey research.

The potential upside of UGC isn’t lost on Under Armour. “If you, as a consumer, start to run into chatter and reviews and photos of people wearing Under Armour, you’re going to think that Under Armour is a brand worth caring about,” Raj Nijjer, vice president of marketing at Yotpo, which creates user-generated content solutions for brands like Away and Everlast, told CO–. “That’s the power of UGC: its ability to create a sense of community and halo effect on the brand,” he said.

There is a balance we have to achieve now, between our voice that speaks to why the product exists, and our customers’ voice, which is much more trained on how it meets the needs of real consumers.

Patrick Grissinger, senior digital product manager, global e-commerce, Under Armour

A chorus of consumer voices to re-assert brand equity

Under Armour’s move to elevate the chorus of consumer voices comes amid a pivot to elevate — or re-elevate — its own image, with its eye on courting the “focused performer,” which represents about $92 billion of the $280 billion athletic apparel and sportswear market, skews younger and is more diverse than its overall consumer, executives said during the retailer’s Investor Day presentations in December 2018.

It follows a bold bid to become a global force in sportswear. Using its North American business as a springboard, Under Armour saw a period of heady expansion over the last few years across products, categories—from basketball to running and golf, vendors and countries.

From 2013 to 2016, its footwear business more than tripled from $300 million to $1 billion, its international business grew fivefold to over $700 million, while its direct-to-consumer arm surpassed $1.5 billion in revenue.

But the expansion also diluted the brand’s high-performance equity.

In the U.S. market, for one, Under Armour extended its footprint to mass department store chains, such as Kohl’s, just as heightened competition in the athleisure category led to heavy sales and discounting of its products.

“As we expanded our distribution, we learned that we could have been better with differentiation among our basic core products to cut through some of the noise,” Kevin Plank, CEO, said during investor day.

Under Armour has since shifted gears, declaring 2019 as the “protect-this-house” phase of the business.

That pivot comes with pumping up its mix of premium, innovation-driven products including temperature regulating jackets and connected footwear, like an app-equipped running shoe that doubles as the wearer’s coach, just as the brand reduces undisciplined sales and promotional activity.

‘If it looks, talks or feels like an ad, it’s not going to win’

Marketers have long preached the gospel of their products and services via advertising, marketing and branding campaigns that have informed shopper purchases. While Under Armour’s carefully crafted, brand-driven content is still part of its marketing toolbox, it's becoming less important. The company now expects UGC to work alongside “its brand DNA and imagery,” Grissinger said on the Mobify panel.

These days, marketers are walking a fine line in crafting branding messages that don’t smack of eye roll-inducing vanity projects. Indeed, “If it looks, talks, or feels like an ad, it’s not going to win,” said Per Pederson, global creative chairman of Grey, of Cannes 2018.

However, it’s not so much a question of brand-generated content versus user-generated content, according to Yotpo’s Nijjer, “But rather that there are any number of factors that influence a consumers’ perception of a company and its products.

“Social validation for commerce has always been incredibly important. But it’s the idea that your own customers can you be your most effective marketing channel that’s new to many established brands. It’s the secret sauce in the rise of digitally native brands today, turning fans into advocates and veritable marketing machines in their own right.”

A recent Yotpo poll of about 2,000 shoppers from the United States and the United Kingdom found that reviews and referrals were by far the most effective “channel” for generating purchase intent, “beating out ads, social media, influencers, you name it,” Nijjer said.

Text reviews are the most widely adopted by brands, he said, which are increasingly using them in marketing channels beyond their e-commerce sites: in digital ads, in social media like Instagram Stories Highlights, and especially in emails.

Brands are even using UGC outdoors. “MeUndies devoted an entire LA billboard to a customer’s Tweet; reviews are in subway ads,” Nijjer said. “What surprises us is that there are entire marketing campaigns built around customer reviews [from brands] like Brooklinen [luxury bedding] and electric toothbrush company Quip.

“Following that are photos, either uploaded by customers or curated from Instagram. Brands display these photos onsite in a variety of ways, such as special Instagram galleries or product-specific carousels, and of course as part of product reviews.”

Yotpo finds that the average conversion uplift for products with reviews is 161%. And conversions are even higher for the fashion category, which sees an upsurge averaging 207%, which Under Armour can tap into, he said.

“But the challenge for Under Armour will be to tap into that UGC groundswell effectively, even as they battle the massive marketing and endorsement muscle of the likes of Nike and Adidas,” Nijjer said. “If Under Armour cracks that code, there’s no more powerful endorsement than mass appeal.”

As Grissinger sees it, UGC is a way for Under Armour to better demonstrate peer and influencer guidance, “which is increasingly important to consumers looking for inspiration and validation to make a purchase decision.”

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Published April 23, 2019