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How Under Armour Aligned Front-Line Employees With Their Brand: As Told By Former VP Of Retail

A CCW Digital Exclusive

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Matt Wujciak

Carl Smit

“When I took over… the imagery, the language we were using to describe products was very inconsistent. And we didn’t have a very good training platform for our wholesale partners. In wholesale, when you got Nike on one side, and Adidas on another… you [as front-line employees] really need to be able to distinctly explain why your product might cost more.” 

Carl Smit, former Under Armour VP of retail, recently told me this in reference to the brand’s financial struggles in the mid-2000s.

The Under Armour dilemma 

UA once dominated cold gear in the sports apparel industry. But with the emergence of new product lines in the market from powerhouses like Nike and Adidas in 2013, the company forgot what Under Armour stood for. 

Everyone did. 

In 2013 Under Armour was headed towards a dark direction, for a reason that not many executives will tell you is the source of their financial shortcomings. 

The reason? Front-line employees. 

Although the source of the problem could be attributed from the top down, there was a lack of alignment between UA marketing managers and retail agents.

The customer service agents weren’t given the training they needed to deliver the brand’s marketing messaging to in-store customers. In other words, they didn’t know how to sell their brand image or differentiate their products. 

Back to the drawing board for Carl and his new team. 

Turning retail agents into brand ambassadors

“[So] we built a standard fixture package, purchased a digital asset management system, and then landed on the consistency of explaining cold gear and feet gear, and who the athletes are of the season… If you have one [prototyped athlete for each season], who is it, and then two, three, four, and so on.” 

Top-level managers and executives reinvented their geotargeted consumer personas based on seasonal product marketing and changed their training strategy for front-line employees. 

When Smit took over Under Armour retail, the brand was six percent international and growing primarily through third-party partners, “who didn’t know how to bring the brand to life,” described Smit. They didn’t have consistent marketing messaging, organized accounts and data management, or training programs for customer service reps and front line employees.

“We [then] launched a brand ambassadorship program,” which brought a “twenty to thirty percent sales increase ...They were interacting with customers on behalf of our wholesale accounts. All of Sporting Goods at the time was running a little lean on their labor so they were very appreciative for the help.” 

Between 85% and 91% of consumers claim that they often fail to drive consistent messaging about the product, a concept that Under Armour analysts became very aware of.  

Combining product knowledge with consumer journey maps

Even worse, as seen in a recent CCW Digital market study, it only takes 1-2 bad interactions for many customers to consider a competitor (like Nike or Adidas).

In other words, there is a severe misalignment between internal marketing teams and the frontline employees delivering their messages within some of today’s largest brands, risking not only potential customer-lifetime-value, but directly putting money in the pockets of competitors.

If you’re an Under Armour customer service rep working in Sporting Goods in the summer of 2013, how can you explain to a customer why a pair of UA basketball shoes is a better product than Nike’s if you only know how to sell long sleeve cold gear? 

They were set up for failure.

These interactions between agents who aren’t familiar with their brand and reps can be an organization’s biggest nightmare. But re-thinking the front-line employee experience can also be a marketing catalyst that drives positive brand image and spiraling advocacy (a strategy that Luluemmon has capitalized on over the years). 

According to the same CCW Digital study, nearly 84% of consumers are open to sharing positive experiences like front-line employee-to-customer interactions on social networks.

So instead of telling front-line employees what to say in the hope of selling a core product, companies need to empower and teach agents what brand experience they are trying to deliver to customers through an extensive line of services and product values, under a unified brand image. 

Training tactics that teach workers how to do this will help generate confident employees who are capable of — and confident in — creating better customer experiences, perceived product value, and exponential advocacy. These employees are still capable (and actually much more capable) of driving revenue, but they’ll be doing it in a way that strengthens brand identity and improves customer connections.

Delivering the omnichannel experience

“What we were trying to do [next] was build a loyalty program so that it didn’t matter where you bought Under Armour, you were rewarded for the purchase. The challenge was sharing data with our wholesale partners. [In a $150 million acquisition] We had just bought MapMyFitness [GPS fitness tracker], so customers could get loyalty points through MapMyFitness [and collect customer data through another medium] just like your seeing with Amazon and Whole Foods with a barcode that you can scan,” and metrics UA could record. 

“I think that is one of the biggest opportunities, blurring the lines through retail and e-tail through the omnichannel experience.” 

With different digital omnichannel touchpoints, actionable customer analytics, new front-line training tactics, and geotargeted consumer personas, Under Armour was able to give its ambassadors the tools they needed to reinvent the brand.

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