What does a car company guy have to do with activewear?
Under Armour is about to find out, since on Monday it joined in the latest industry trend and named a chief innovation officer. The position has become fashion’s — and the business world in general’s — executive du jour, following in the wake of previous roles seen indispensable to fashion and retail’s ongoing transformation, such as chief information officer or chief digital officer.
While companies such as Target, Nordstrom and L’Oréal have had the position on their executive rosters for a while, the pressure to stay one step ahead of competitors and offer consumers the latest and greatest is intensifying. As a result, more and more companies have tapped senior executives in the role, including everyone from Ralph Lauren Corp. to Avon.
But while many of these executives came from within company ranks — or at least from the industry — Under Armour has reached far beyond fashion and retail to General Motors, naming Clay Dean, who worked at the automaker for 20 years, to the position.
Dean reports to Kevin Haley, Under Armour’s president of category management and innovation. Haley said that although Dean’s most recent experience is in the automotive industry, he “brings a lot of diversity of experience to Under Armour,” citing his expertise in design and solving problems for consumers as among his most-valued assets.
Dean worked on what is described at GM as “mobility,” or how customers interact with their cars to get around more easily — skills he is expected to apply to apparel, accessories and footwear — “anything that touches the consumer” — for Under Armour.
Dean will work at the company’s new Lighthouse, a center for design and innovation that opened in South Baltimore at the end of June. And he will have “cross-functional” responsibilities, Haley said, working with the design, marketing, product and category management departments to ensure consistency. “And he’ll be developing a global vision too,” Haley said.
“Clay brings a unique point of view since he thinks of the consumer experience in design,” Haley added. Dean’s most recent role was head of GM’s global advanced design organization. He has been involved in leading the vision for several of the company’s concept cars and was chief designer of the Hummer H2, H2 SUT and H3 cars.
For Under Armour, the addition of a chief innovation officer makes sense, according to Brenda Malloy, president of Herbert Mines Associates, an executive search firm.
In the performance apparel and footwear field, it’s essential to “stay ahead of the curve in fabric and fit,” so investing in a person like Dean is logical for a brand like Under Armour or its competitors Nike, Adidas or even Lululemon.
But in other companies, it makes less sense. “Target isn’t leading in innovation,” she said. “So I wonder what that person is doing. It’s really company-dependent and value-proposition dependent.”
According to a report on the responsibilities of the chief innovation officer from recruiter Creative Skill Set, the executive researches new products as well as the target market and current trends. He or she often works with scientists and technicians and creates a cost analysis of the product to ensure that its creation will be financially viable before being brought to market.
Les Berglass of Berglass + Associates, an executive recruiting firm, said there are two places where the industry is letting the consumer down today: product offering and the shopping experience. “So we have a crazed need for innovation,” he said.
He said manufacturers must strive to create items that are buzzy, such as the Tesla or the Shinola brand, while retailers need to “add excitement at point of sale.”
Case in point: When Adidas opened its New York City flagship last fall, it was designed to replicate a high school stadium, complete with a “tunnel” from the street, bleachers and a “locker room” in which to try on clothes. Nike’s behemoth of a store in SoHo has a personalization studio and “trial zones,” where customers can test-drive product, and Under Armour is touting that it will build the “single greatest retail store in the world” on the site of the former FAO Schwarz sometime after 2018.
“There’s been an enormous increase in the demand for marketing and customer service,” Berglass said. “Anything that elevates the customer experience.”