While many of the brand’s competitors have embraced fashion and collaborations — think Nike and Virgil Abloh and Adidas and Stella McCartney — Under Armour is taking a different path forward, Frisk told WWD in one of his first sit-down interviews since becoming chief executive officer this month.
“Are we going to do a collaboration with Tom Ford? Most likely not,” Frisk said.
Instead, Under Armour is aggressively growing its retail base and doubling down on what it does best — performance.
“We’re going to make sure everything we make does something for you,” he said. “We believe the consumer we’re after lives in this cycle of train-performance, compete-performance and recovery-performance and we believe that adding style and definition in that recovery phase is where we’ll play with the more casual parts of our collection. But it has to perform.”
Frisk said this message may sound “simplistic, but sometimes the best things are clear and simple: Under Armour being the human performance company in the athletic performance space.”
He said the mission to create “performance solutions you didn’t know you need and can’t imagine living without” will continue to drive the company. “I wake up every day excited about the fact that making athletes better is our mission.”
This is “a big moment” for both him and the company, Frisk acknowledged.
“We’ve been working toward this moment ever since I got here,” the ceo said, speaking at the company’s Lighthouse innovation lab here and during the brand’s Human Performance Summit, where the brand revealed new marketing for a new age.
This marked the first major public appearance he has made without being flanked by the charismatic founder Kevin Plank, who is now executive chairman and brand chief and was nowhere to be seen. (Plank was in New York speaking at the National Retail Federation convention, beating the drum for Under Armour and giving Frisk his space).
Frisk takes charge at what is still a tough time for Under Armour.
After a couple of decades of enviable growth, Under Armour started to stumble around 2017 after one of its largest retail customers, Sports Authority, went out of business and the brand made the controversial decision to try to recoup some of that business by selling to Kohl’s.
Under Armour also expanded into a number of product categories and launched a high-fashion, high-priced fashion line designed by Tim Coppens that was abruptly discontinued after only one year.
And the company has continued to struggle with both its sales and scandals — Under Armour had to explicitly ban executives from expensing strip-club visits and the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating its accounting practices.
Frisk was brought on board in 2017 to try and right the ship. The Swedish-born executive brought nearly 30 years of experience in the apparel, footwear and retail industry to Under Armour having served as ceo of The Aldo Group and before that in executive roles at VF Corp.
Although Frisk has had some success since joining the company and instituting a $200 million, five-year turnaround plan about a year ago, Under Armour has still not convinced Wall Street that it is on the right road. Just last week, J.P. Morgan Securities estimated fourth-quarter sales grew only 4.7 percent, below consensus estimates for a 5.6 percent gain, and that earnings per share will be 10 cents, in line with predictions. The investment company attributed the anticipated slowdown to sluggish sales in North America, where the company has struggled to keep pace with Nike and Adidas.
Frisk didn’t skirt the issue. He said “resetting North America in the right way is important to us” and believes that the new brand message and the company’s ability to speak with “clarity and distinction within the athletic performance space” will help it gain points in the future.
“Driving that point home is how we will ultimately win,” he said.
“Being clear about what our brand stands for is incredibly important for us,” Frisk said. “Part of the reason we lost a little bit of momentum at the end of ‘16 going into ‘17 as the entire athletic market faltered a little bit, was because we were sending too many messages for too long. We increased the number of categories. But today we will get back to who we really are.
“What people are starting to talk about now is post-ath-leisure,” he said. “We don’t really want to separate style and performance. We believe if we can’t make things that look fantastic, people aren’t going to wear them anyway. And the fact is that we are actually giving the person who engages with our product a choice in how they want to wear it, that’s really what’s happening in the marketplace today. People are choosing to wear more athletic-looking garments even for casual occasions.”
While the business in North America continues to struggle — sales dropped 4 percent to $1 billion in the third quarter — international business has been a bright spot, rising 5 percent to $368 million in the three-month period with strength in Asia Pacific and Latin America.
“The difference between Under Armour today and Under Armour three or four years ago is we’re really operating as a global company now,” Frisk said. “We put this operating model in place where we’re able to be strong in each region and now we can do it with this message consistently across the entire world. We’ve had campaigns before but we never had a brand platform like this. That’s what it really is and it goes across everything we do. And it’s beyond 12 months. We’re counting on this to take us into 2021 as well.”
In addition to international, Frisk said the company is taking an aggressive posture when it comes to brick-and-mortar retail.
He said Under Armour will finally take possession this year of its long-awaited New York City flagship — a 53,000-square-foot space in the former FAO Schwarz space on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street that it committed to back in 2016.
At the same time, he said Under Armour, which opened nearly 300 of its own stores around the world last year, has also plans on opening 1,700 to 1,900 stores worldwide over the next four years.
For Frisk, stores continue to play a key role in communicating the brand message, especially in Under Armour’s home turf of North America, as well as in Asia. “Here in North America, one of the things that can help us get stronger faster is having a select number of stores in the right places,” he said. “Right now we don’t have that many full-price stores and there’s an opportunity. And in Asia, we’re way behind our biggest competitors in terms of number of stores in China, for example, so there’s lots of opportunity there, too.”
In particular, focus for the global Under Armour business is a new marketing look that draws from the company’s past and the now well-known story of how Plank created a performance T-shirt in 1996 to replace the cotton one he wore to play football.
Frisk said this legacy is what Under Armour will be mining going forward. “We’re going to be an athletic performance brand,” he said definitively. “We’re going to be for the focused performer.”
He said the company conducted some 40,000 interviews across the globe to understand its best position in the marketplace, and the result is the new advertising and marketing campaign launched Tuesday that centers around: “The Only Way Is Through.”
Some 175 athletes, trainers and influencers from around the world were flown to Baltimore at the company’s expense to be on hand for the launch of the new campaign and get a peek at the year ahead.
This year, the company will introduce UA Clone, which brings auxetic technology, or the ability to expand and contract, to footwear and allows shoes to conform to each individual foot for maximum comfort and performance.
In apparel, Under Armour is high on the UA Infinity Bra that features liquid-injected foam for a more natural shape that moves with the breasts but also provides support. For women’s leggings and jackets, the company will introduce UA Meridian Moisture-Infused products on March 1 made from a fabric that actually moisturizes the skin when wearing it.
In footwear, the company in February will release the second version of its TriBase Reign minimal training shoe as well as the Machina, a highly cushioned shoe that features a two-pronged, carbon-filled Pebax spring plate. Joshua Rattet, vice president and general manager of the run category for Under Armour, said the Machina is not intended to be a competitor to the Nike’s Vaporfly Next% shoes that Eliud Kipchoge wore to break two hours in a marathon last fall. “We’re focused on training and that was a race-day expression,” he said.
Under Armour has also partnered with Gore-Tex on a collection of shirts that it said are the fastest-drying and most breathable in the market, and it is expanding its UA Rush collection of mineral-infused performance products that recycles the body’s energy to improve performance, into a seamless collection. The Iso-Chill technology that uses a proprietary yarn to pull heat away from the body, is being expanded beyond golf to other apparel this spring.
Clearly, it’s game on for Under Armour — and Frisk.