Founded in 1996 by college football player Kevin Plank, Under Armour has carved out a significant niche in the athletic wear market with their innovative moisture-wicking technology.

But it was the company’s savvy marketing tactics that propelled it to fame. They gained early recognition through product placement in sports movies, and later engaged in a high-profile bidding war to secure the endorsement of NBA star Kevin Durant.

Initially targeting male athletes, Under Armour recognized the need to expand their reach to a wider audience. To attract more women, they developed two videos highlighting that Under Armour is for everyone, regardless of gender.

Working with brand agency Droga5 and two non-athletes, Gisele Bündchen and Misty Copeland, they created the impactful “I Will What I Want” campaign. Here’s what marketers can learn.

Misty Copeland: Recognize Shared Experiences

The videos are strikingly different in their approach.

Much like her popular career, Misty Copeland’s video is all about contrast. Copeland, who didn’t start ballet until she was 13, had famously overcome racial stereotypes and a rigid tradition in the ballet world. Over time, she realized her ambitions in dance, worked with rock stars like Prince, and hosted TV dance competitions.

Copeland’s video has three elements. The video starts with her dancing on a set. The score begins with a simple piano before swinging into rock guitar as Copeland breaks out from the traditional ballet studio set and moves around the soundstage.

The audio is a preteen girl reading a rejection letter Copeland received when she was just starting out:

“Dear candidate, thank you for your application to our ballet academy. Unfortunately, you have not been accepted. You lack the right feet, turnout, Achilles tendons, and leg and torso length. You simply have the wrong body for ballet. With your body, you could be a professional dancer in Vegas. And at 13, you are already far too old to be considered. Even those who have the body and the training, still most will never make it.”

That last line is held to the end of the video, which fades to an Under Armour logo and the phrase “I Will What I Want.”

The ad is built on forceful contrast. As the letter critiques her body, the camera focuses on Copeland’s athletic physique, highlighting her classical ability while saying she has the body of a “Vegas dancer” and dropping the last line after Copeland has finished an entire elegant routine.

The message here is clear and will resonate with anyone interested in sports or athletic competition (a clear target for Under Armour). While it may be hard work to overcome the odds, hard work and willpower can bring us to massive success.

Furthermore, by foregrounding Copeland and ballet, Under Armour situates that sentiment in a new context. This allows them to speak to a much wider audience, including women.

A crucial part of communication is recognizing shared experiences. In this case, it’s about recognizing that we all feel pain and rejection, and many of us feel stereotyped. And we all want to feel the hope of overcoming it.

Gisele Bündchen: Block Out Noise

Gisele Bündchen’s ad takes a more direct and introspective approach.

In an uninterrupted shot, she powers through a kickboxing workout as comments projected on the gym walls reveal the initial reactions to her Under Armour endorsement. These remarks mirror the online criticism many women encounter when venturing into new territory.

“Stick to modeling, sweetie.”

“Gisele is just a model.”

“Is modeling now a sport?”

Despite being widely recognized as one of the world’s most beautiful women and associated with luxury brands like Chanel and Louis Vuitton, Bündchen faced the perception of being solely a model – someone to be admired, not heard. The ad effectively challenges this narrow view, showcasing her athleticism and resilience amidst the negativity.

It strips the video down to its most basic message: What others think of your choices doesn’t matter.

For many, it may be hard to identify with the plight of a supermodel entering a new endorsement deal with an athletic company. But the most famous model in the world is subject to negativity and disdain based on her choices.

While the message of “will” for Copeland was persevering in the face of prejudice, Bündchen’s was a message of persevering in the face of criticism. The message: champions have to block out the noise.

Showing Instead of Telling

Under Armour’s “I Will What I Want” campaign stands out by transcending the tired “inspirational” messaging that dominates athletic wear marketing. They move from telling to showing. Instead of portraying unattainable athletes, they feature non-athletes like Gisele Bündchen and Misty Copeland, broadening their appeal while including all women.

Under Armour doesn’t shy away from the realities women face during workouts. Instead of ignoring the constant observation, judgment, and belittlement women experience, they confront these issues directly. It’s a powerful acknowledgment, leaving women to resonate with the experience and draw from their own strength.

This pointed approach makes the Under Armour campaign one to model (so to speak), avoiding cliche messages and making a deeper connection with women.

Marketer’s Takeaway

The year after this campaign ran, Under Armour saw a rise of nearly $1 billion in overall revenue. It was so successful that Under Armour followed it up with a campaign called “Unlike Any,” also featuring Copeland.

For communicators, the lessons are:

  • Show, Don’t Tell: Move beyond empty inspiration and demonstrate how your product empowers users through their real-life experiences.
  • Broaden Your Appeal: Go beyond traditional stereotypes and feature diverse individuals using your product, avoiding exclusionary language.
  • Acknowledge Realities: Don’t ignore the challenges your target audience faces. Address them directly and show how your product can be part of their journey.
  • Be Authentic: Avoid cliche messages and connect with your audience on an emotional level by presenting genuine experiences.
  • Inspire: Offer an inspiring platform for your audience to find their own strength and connect with your brand through their own experiences.

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