As a confluence of factors takes aim at fashion firms — and the safety net that once appeared to shield athletic brands from the melee disintegrates — how does one turn around a label whose growing pains may have hurt its luster?
“Simplicate,” says Patrik Frisk, who was hired in July to take over the president reins from Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank amid the brand’s lagging momentum.
Although he’s well aware that it’s not an actual word, Frisk — the former CEO of Aldo and a 10-year VF Corp. executive — has hung the term on the wall of his office at the brand’s Baltimore headquarters as a reminder of what he believes to be a huge component of his purpose there.
“My goal as a leader in this very complicated world is to make things understandable for the organization — give clear direction and vision so people understand why they’re coming to work every day,” Frisk said when he sat down with FN on the heels of fourth-quarter earnings release that saw the brand surpass top-line forecasts. “One of the great things we did when I came in here is, Kevin [Plank] and I partnered on recrafting the vision, mission and values [of Under Armour] — making sure that we took all the good from everything that got the brand to this point over the past 20 years and refine it and focus on what we need in place for the next 20 years.”
Among the elements that Frisk will insist the brand carry from its past into its future is its foundation in performance.
“We believe that we more or less invented this category, and we need to continue to drive that aspect of what we stand for. We need to do it, of course, with style and trend in mind, but we need to do it also with innovation,” he said. “We need to bring product to market that people didn’t know that they needed, but once they have it, they can’t live without it.”
Indeed, in 1996, when Plank, then a 23-year-old former University of Maryland special-teams captain, launched Under Armour out of a desire to create a solution for his sweat-soaked workout T-shirts, his focus was intently on performance.
Since then, expansion has been rapid for the brand, with its footwear product getting a marked boost when the firm signed basketball superstar Stephen Curry — who also enjoyed a rapid rise to NBA success.
But with evolution, there are always trade-offs.
“When you grow that fast, there are inherently a lot of things that you can do to get the job done but maybe not in the most effective and efficient way or productive way,” Frisk said, referencing his wall decor and diligence around simplifying the brand’s operations. “Also, you can get a little fat around the edges, and you don’t think about the purpose of each and every SKU you have.”
To that end, Under Armour’s new president is hyperfocused on refining segmentation (the brand raised a few eyebrows when it launched in Kohl’s last year after previously espousing a more premium image) as well as product initiatives with a consumer-first approach.
“One of the big things for me has been understanding how we as a company can better align with what’s going on with the consumer out there today” Frisk said, noting that the company has engaged in significant consumer research during the past six months, including a global segmentation study targeting more than 20,000 people. “We also went into the space where we compete and understood more about it. We simultaneously looked internally at our go-to-market — in other words, how we coordinate ourselves from sales to product to marketing to supply chain and innovation and all those different things.”
Frisk is well aware that it’s particularly critical that the initiatives formed out of these new insights take hold in the North American market — where the brand’s struggles have been most apparent. In Q4, Under Armour’s revenues in the region fell 4 percent — with pressures coming in the form of product misses as well as increased competition from Nike and Adidas, as well as New Balance, Skechers and other athletic players taking larger market share.
But unlike his predecessor — Plank famously made headlines in 2015 when he referred to Adidas as Under Armour’s “dumbest competitor” — Frisk has kinder words for his rivals.
“We think our competition is awesome — we think they’re doing a great job,” he said. “What’s really exciting for me is to see how many of our competitors are trying to redefine themselves. The way we think about this is that the consumer is now in charge. That’s the big the change over the last five years. If you go back five to 10 years, brands were in charge. They dictated the tempo inside of the distribution that was set and segmented. Today, consumers make the choice of where, when and how they want to engage with the brand and how they want to acquire the brand.”
So what’s the path to winning?
“To think about the consumer in the lens of UA,” Frisk explained. “So inside of the space in which we compete, what choices are consumers really making in that space as they acquire a performance brand? We also have to understand what’s constant for us in that space as a brand. How do you make sure that you stand for something in that space, and how do you think about that from a longevity perspective?”
In many ways, Frisk’s view harkens back to the second piece of wall art with which he chose to adorn his new office. “I have this [picture] that says, ‘If you don’t grow, you die,’ — and that’s not just from a financial perspective. It’s [also] around the growth of the people here internally at Under Armour. We want to make sure we’re giving each person the opportunity to reach their full potential — that’s really important for us.”