There really is no sporting phenomenon like the Super Bowl. It is sporting pageantry writ large. The single most watched TV event every year. Where other contenders like The Olympics or The World Cup finals only happen every 4 years, this is an annual assault on your senses.

For marketers its like Prom Night, Your wedding and Winning the Lottery rolled into one. Brands spend millions of dollars launching ads – then millions more buying media – when almost the entire population of the United States is glued to a TV. This year a reported 1 billion will be glued to their TV’s, tablets and mobile phones simultaneously as the networks and sponsors push multi-screen content around the game.

Sports writers, never shy of hyperbole, often compare it to the Roman Circus. A battlefield. A crusade. A bloody war. Inevitably one team is compared to David, the other to Goliath.

The metaphors are particularly ripe this year. The coaches of San Francisco and Baltimore are actually brothers (John & Jim Harbaugh) and this Super Bowl also marks the final game of Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, a long-serving and much loved Ravens player.

Perhaps lessor-known is the Challenger brand story beneath all the Super Bowl hype.

Baltimore is home to two Challengers

Ray Lewis Challenger brand Under ArmourMany sports pundits have the Ravens as Sunday’s underdogs but there’s another Challenger story in the mix here. Baltimore is also home of athletic apparel manufacturer Under Armour who goes head-to-head with league sponsors Nike on Sunday.

In a world dominated by huge behemoths like Nike, adidas and Reebok, feisty Under Armour has been aggressively throwing rocks at those Goliaths since 1996. They’re also becoming a darling of Wall Street with consistently strong results in a tough, competitive market.

Playing the Challenger at Under Armour

I was fortunate enough to interview Corey Friesen, Marketing Director of Under Armour Canada and The Americas, and asked him about working for a Challenger and his thoughts on Super Bowl XLVII

HB: Your CEO Kevin Plank started the company with just one product he sold to his other athletic friends? That kind of mythology is a huge part of the Challenger story.137699-under-armour-1

CF: Yeah. Sort of the quintessential ‘American Dream’ challenge…a sports product that creeps up on the big guys and explodes. For Kevin Plank, the product was a tight-fitting, moisture-wicking t-shirt, designed to be worn under American football protection pads.  All developed from Kevin’s own experience as a College football player.  Some amazing networking, incredibly hard work, a few “all-in” bets and some magical slow-play “pay-outs”…and we’re snapping at more than the heels of the big dogs in athletic apparel & footwear.  Be humble. Stay hungry.  That challenger attitude of Kevin Plank’s still vibrates daily in the company strategy and actions.

HB: A number of the athletes playing on Sunday are signed with UA but Nike is the NFL league sponsor. What does that mean for your US counterparts and their marketing?

CF: Nike has the league uniform deal. So that affords them lots of camera time and sales of the licensed jerseys to fans.  The glam AND the gold. Which is great for them.

But we continue to challenge, with our own deals on shoes and gloves, areas where we can improve athlete performance without all the noise that comes with the biggest deal – the jerseys.  This means athletes can wear our products WITH exposed logos in the NFL, so look for the UA mark this Sunday. You might be surprised how many you pick up.

And this underdog position extends to other sports as well.  Sometimes we are an “official baselayer” or perhaps “official cleat” (MLB) or sometimes we simply outfit our athletes/teams and hope for a bit of luck wrt exposure. Either way, we realize our wheelbarrows of cash are smaller, so we fight for whatever exposure we can get.

HB: Challenger brands often face limited budgets to do traditional mass advertising, especially compared to powerhouse Nike. Tell me a little bit about the attitude to advertising at UA.

CF: Make one dollar spend like three.  Humble and hungry.  We can’t outspend brands like Nike just now, so we have to “box clever” and resonate stronger with the current generation.

HB: Besides the hometown heroes the Ravens, UA also sponsors several other Challenger athletes like Canadian legend and World MMA Champion George St-Pierre. Which athletes would readers be surprised to know are UA athletes or is there a particular athlete or sport that is more suited/aligned to the UA brand?

CF: Gotta stop you there. GSP is bonafide champion about 7 consecutive title defenses.  So wouldn’t put “Challenger” label on him.  BUT, the sport of MMA would score as Challenger for us.  Aggressively growing.  Out to pull in more eyes, dollars and momentum than the others, like Boxing and Nascar.  UA’s investment in GSP a few years back proved a great gamble in a Challenger sport.

Our roster is much smaller than that of Nike or adidas.  But we’re fierce about supporting them and making them better.  Emerging athlets looking for a sponsor have to play the “fish and pond size” game:  become “athlete # 157” for sport X  for one of those other brands…or go to a smaller roster where you can make more noise and get more activation effort.

A few to watch:  Sloane Stevens. Carey Price. Izzy Folau, Brandon Jennings. Canelo Alvarez. Jose Reyes. The Hot Spurs.

HB: Last question…what’s your predictions for Sunday’s game? Is there any office pool going on at UA HQ in Baltimore?

CF: The Ravens and Ray Lewis are heartbeat entities for Under Armour. The Baltimore connection is gut-level strong.  So Sunday = Ravens.

But the AFC championship was much tougher to call.  Tom Brady is a high-profile UA athlete as well, so some definite hand-wringing on where to cheer that day.

HB: Thanks for your time Corey.

As a Challenger fan, I’m impressed with how Under Armour have kept their Challenger ethos alive. In the culture. In the way the company makes decisions.

Nike are a formidable force but UA highlights that Challenger brandss can still take on world-renowned brands and win.

Go Ravens!!!

Tags: , , , , ,