Under Armour was the brainchild of Kevin Plank, a ‘not-big-enough,
not-fast-enough football player who wanted a little bit of an edge
on the field’ (1). That underdog competitiveness went on to become
a core part of the culture of the young Under Armour, one the
leadership fought to nurture and retain as they grew.

Our interview is with Kip Fulks, who joined Plank’s nascent brand
when it was still packing product in Plank’s grandmother’s house
in Georgetown, and went on to run almost every part of the
organisation during his 20 years at the company. Here, Fulks talks
about the importance of that Feisty Underdog culture, and how
living in the shadow of a better-resourced Goliath led Under Armour
to hungrily find better ways to market its products to athletes,
consumers and manufacturers alike.

How did your involvement in Under Armour start?
My partner and I, Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO, went to school
at University of Maryland together. I started, in the early days, working
out of his grandmother’s basement. I’ve done everything from pack
boxes to run distribution centres. My work in the early years was
focused on supply chain and sourcing. Then I took on all footwear
and innovation, eventually head of all product and innovation and
then became CMO. I served in many roles over the 20 years.

Kevin was a football player – American football – and I played
lacrosse, which is a small sport here in the States, but quite popular
now. Someone introduced us and said, ‘Hey, you should really meet
this guy; he’s trying to sell these t-shirts – maybe you could help him
get it into lacrosse. He’s trying to do football.’

So I went down and met him, and he showed me these shirts. He loved
the idea of wearing a compression short, but nobody made something
tight-fitting for your upper body. His concept was that you can have
a nice, tight-fitting shirt with proprioception, which is helping your
muscles stay in form, helping with moisture.

He gave me some shirts. I wore them and they were amazing. I went
back a couple of days later saying, ‘Hey, these things aren’t bullshit.’

Everything in American football had changed – the helmet, the cleats,
the referee, the game, the television, everything, but they still wore
a cotton t-shirt underneath their pads. It’s the only part of the game
that hadn’t changed. It was that simple. It was time for it to change.

Was Under Armour a brand with a big ambition right from
the beginning?
It was articulated very early from Kevin when he wanted me to
join him. He wanted to make sure that I was on board with his vision,
and I give him a lot of credit for not having the typical ad firm write
the vision statement for us.

He wanted to be a large sporting goods brand. He wanted to give
the customers different choices. He said it from the beginning.

What drove you as a culture in the early days?
From a competitor standpoint you want to compete and you
want to win. In the early days I think it drove us, and the positive
reinforcement from our customers was also a great motivation.
Every time we got a new customer, they loved the product.
So why would we stop doing this?

We were making a better product for our customers. Kevin was not
a professional football player, but it didn’t matter. He walked the walk,
talked the talk, and he knew everybody. He would come back and say,
‘Hey, look, this is what these guys want, here’s what we need to do –
we need to cut these sleeves off, we need to change this colour, we
need to change the pattern, this, that and the other.’ And I would
say – ‘Okay, let’s do it.’

We had a very different attitude to Nike. It saw our products showing
up in the locker room. It had samples of our product. And it was
complacent and flat-out arrogant: ‘There’s no way a small brand
like this can make a better product than us.’

So it didn’t make our shirt. Many, many, many years later, it made
them exactly like ours. But in the early days, Nike launched a whole
new line that was completely performance-oriented, but it was not
tight fitting, it wasn’t like ours. Nike was like, no, no, no, these guys
don’t have it right.

We saw some of its early product that Nike tried to compete with
us on, and we were like, this is dog shit. They don’t get it. They sold
a lot of things to a lot of people, but we lived it. We were in the locker
room every week, taking feedback from people. Complacency and
ego smacked them right in the face.

When did the company start to really grow?
I think the big step was we started to get our product on some
professional teams, and Kevin made a pretty bold decision to move
our company. He wanted to get out of a very large cosmopolitan city
like Washington, DC and go to Baltimore, so we could grow our niche
in a place where we’d own it.

We just happened to be right next to Ravens Stadium, so all these NFL
teams played right next to us, you know, 9, 10, 11 times a year. We just
became the Baltimore brand. Under Armour is the largest company
in Baltimore now.

Have you been able to keep that underdog spirit internally as you’ve
got bigger?
When we branded the cafeteria at our headquarters, we named
it Hungry and Humble – it seemed fitting and we didn’t even really
think about it, it was just what we called it. It kind of fed our mantra.
It wasn’t fake. At Under Armour there was a core group of people
that were actually humble. I believe I was a core part of the brand
DNA. Manufacturers, marketing, internal partners might come in,
but if they’re not really humble and they’re not really hungry, they
don’t understand the team. And when you have a strong group of
personalities of really determined people, they see through that shit.

I think what is really important to understand is that if those things
aren’t inherently present prior to a growth spurt, it won’t last.

As an underdog in the category with much smaller budgets,
how did you approach marketing in the early days?
Not being able to procure large marketing assets early was a clear
weakness – not being able to do TV commercials and procure spots
on national TV.

We didn’t have money, so we went into the locker room. We said fuck
that, we said we’re just going to go talk to the people that make the
decisions. We’re going to go spend time with the players.

We didn’t have a lot of money, sometimes none, so our personality
and our perseverance and our product had to come through.
We were relentless to get our product onto people.

It was the original social influencer model. Now there’s Instagram
and Facebook and Twitter and people say – well, let’s get this person
because they have 100,000 followers. Kevin did that the old-fashioned
way with professional athletes and professional teams. And he was
relentless at it. He innately understood it.

If you’re doing it with 10 people, but that one guy throws the winning
pass in the Super Bowl or the one guy has the catch, or the one guy
gets signed the next season for a big contract – you didn’t know which
one it was going to be. So you had to do it with all of them.

So that underdog mentality in marketing was, ‘Who cares if they say
no? We’re still going to try to get them to wear our shirt. Who cares if
they say they wear Nike? We’re still giving them our product, and we’re
going to show them passion by hanging out, and they’re going to fall
in love with our stuff.’

Were there any instances when you took on the big guys directly?
Did you ever poke the bear?
I think one of the more visible ways in the early days is that we were
getting our product on NFL players, and we were not an NFL sponsor,
we were not an official licensee. But we were in the locker room and
these guys wanted to wear our products, so the NFL called us up
and said, ‘You can’t put your logos on anything because you’re not
an official supplier.’

So, we supplied unbranded product a couple of times, and then we
were like, let’s leave our locker tag on so the players know who makes
the gear. It just happened to be on the centre back neck and it started
showing up in TV. I can imagine if I’m the head of sports marketing at
Nike and I’ve signed a massive contract with the NFL and I’m watching
Monday night football and the Colts are playing outdoors in the cold
weather wearing these tight-fitting t-shirts that I don’t make, and all
of a sudden, I can see the brand’s logo? I would say that’s poking
the bear.

Eventually the NFL said, listen, you guys, if you don’t do this the right
way, you’re going to be in trouble. So, we asked – how can we do it?
They said, why don’t you sponsor our NFL Europe league? So we did.

How did your underdog nature help you to get those athletes
to choose you over the other, bigger brands?
I think the athletes were used to the big brands and how the big
brands treated people, and our attitude was refreshing to them. We
would go above and beyond. Big brands would be like, yes, we’ll get
you something, we’ll see how it works out. Some marketing manager
would then put an order in and some fricking guy at the warehouse
would maybe pack it up. But that’s not what we did.

Kevin would call me. I would drive to the warehouse. I would pack
the shirts up, I would drive to FedEx by midnight, make sure it got
on the plane. I’d put a handwritten note in it. Kevin would call the
guy or fly or drive and be there when the package arrived and made
sure it got in their hands. They were like, ‘Holy shit, these guys are
nuts. I’m just going to wear the shirt because they’re crazy.’

We did that scenario hundreds of times – brilliantly, flawlessly.
It just seemed like the right thing to do.

The other advantage we had against the bigger guys was
in manufacturing.

The big companies, they were horrible partners to manufacturers:
‘Give me a cheaper cost. Give me a new location. Give me cheaper
labour. I don’t want to be in this country – move me to this country
because I heard that the labour rate went down 10 cents.’

We came in and said, ‘No, we want innovation and quality. We want
your best, most expensive facility. We just need to make sure 100%
of it shows up on time, and we never have a quality issue.’

How did you identify the Under Armour athlete? And to what extent
did you want them to embody that underdog mentality too?
Kevin and the marketing team were always looking for the humble
and hardworking. Not everybody we signed was like that. But,
generally speaking, we were going after this work ethic in the athlete.
I mean, it’s about authentic people. When you meet these people,
you just know they’ve lived their sport.

Later, as we got better at it, we created a bunch of filters and words
and feelings that we always wanted to put people through. But in the
early days, it was just Kevin and his team on the sports marketing side
just using their gut.

You couldn’t afford the big player, but the athletes and their growth
went hand in hand. Kevin was a magician. Literally every person he
picked did something amazing. You look at Tom Brady and Bryce
Harper and Misty Copeland and Lindsey Vonn – these people were
with us for a long time.

Do you motivate the team with this sense of fighting the ‘big guys’?
The underdog mentality, the David and Goliath concept was very
clear to us. But you didn’t sit there and talk about the size of Goliath’s
shoes, because then it would create fear in your own mind or your
own organisation.

We would definitely study the marketplace and see what people were
doing. Kevin liked to get the company together and say ‘Look, this is
what’s going on – if we don’t beat this, we’re not going to have jobs.’
And in the early days, it was damn true.

You could just take what was going on – maybe a product launch that
a brand had, or maybe a big game that one of our teams lost to the
competitor, or a new brand coming into the market – and it was like,
‘Listen man, we’ve got to be better than all these guys, we’re the
originator.’ Every one of those is another log on the fire.

When is the last time you heard the story about the rich kid that got
in a fight with the rich kid? Never. No, you hear the story about the
poor kid who gets in a fight with the rich kid. That’s the story that
everybody wants to tell.

1. When we were small: Under Armour, J.D. Harrison,
Washington Post, 12 November 2014