“Sworn enemies sometimes become best friends,” says Kevin Plank, CEO and founder of Under Armour.
Plank went on to say, “I never had anything against cotton. It’s the most popular fabric in the world, but it just didn’t work right for us. We took cotton and made it work right.”
What it really took to move quickly from foe to friend was some open and frank discussion between Cotton Incorporated and Under Armour, some very clever and creative product development, and making Under Armour lots of money.
The first cotton product that Under Armour now sells, Charged Cotton, pushed company profits up by 68 percent in the first quarter of 2011. The company sold 1.2 million Charged Cotton products from mid-March until the end of April — topping the company’s previous record for synthetic Tech T-shirts — previously their top selling t-shirt product.
In the fall of 2011, Under Armour followed up their release of Charged Cotton t-shirts with release of a line of weather resistant over-products. In their marketing campaign, the company points out sports fans will no longer need to sit in the rain wrapped in plastic or nylon. They can stay dry and stay comfortable wearing rain resistant Storm products made from cotton.
Unlike rain resistant raincoats and synthetic garments, cotton Storm products breath. While the other products can keep a person dry, they also keep a person warm, if not hot. The cotton products provide significantly more comfort, according to Under Armour promotional material.
Their latest cotton product, a weather and rain resistant fleece sweatshirt, is selling for $50-$75. Previously, they were selling a similar product made from synthetic fibers for half that price. They also are selling a weather resistant fleece ‘hoodie’ for $60-$100.
At a time when other companies were looking for less expensive alternatives to cotton for apparel products, Under Armour went a totally different direction and made it work. In the process they provided a market for cotton that wasn’t all that easy to sell in 2011.
Though the transition from no cotton to highly successful cotton product sounds simple enough, Mark Messura, vice-president of Strategic Planning for Cotton Incorporated, admits the product development phase was intense and compressed into a short time period from development to market.
And, he says the opening phases of their negotiations with Under Armour seemed more like the setting for a spy novel than a business deal.
Speaking at a press conference at the recent Beltwide Cotton Conference, Messura chronicled the series of events that flipped Under Armour from foe to friend.
“Our goal is to help U.S. cotton farmers sell more cotton. With Under Armour, we were working with a highly successful apparel company that used zero cotton. The same company used tens of thousands of bales with their first cotton product,” Messura says.
“While 2011 was good for cotton growers in terms of selling cotton for high prices, it was a very difficult year from the perspective of trying to sell cotton for products. Getting companies to look at cotton as an alternative was really hard, because polyester and nylon didn’t have similar run-ups in price for raw materials,” Messura points out.
Prior to their work with Cotton Incorporated, not only did Under Armour not use cotton, they were openly hostile to cotton in a number of long-running advertising campaigns.
“I remember walking into a Sports Authority store in Birmingham, Ala., and seeing a life-size display proclaiming ‘cotton is the enemy’ recalls,” Monty Bain, regional communications manager for the Cotton Board.
“I had to come see this press conference, because I still can’t believe it happened. I’ve been in the cotton business most of my life and to see that ad in a big, successful store was just infuriating. To think we are now partners, is truly amazing,” Bain adds.
Under Armour began in 1995 as an idea of company founder, Kevin Plank, then special teams captain of the University of Maryland football team. Tired of repeatedly changing the cotton T-shirt under his jersey, as it became wet and heavy during the course of a game, Plank set out to develop a next generation shirt that would remain drier and lighter.
The partnership between cotton and Under Armour got off to something of a shaky start, Messura recalls. “We got a call from Under Armour saying they wanted to meet with us to see what cotton had to offer. After they agreed to end the ‘cotton is our enemy’ ads, we agreed to meet with them.
“On June 9, 2009, we met very secretly and very quietly in a remote building in a remote area of their sprawling Baltimore, Md. facility. We weren’t allowed to go into their main building, but here we were, two Cotton Incorporated guys meeting with the management team at Under Armour — a company that had previously called us their enemy,” Messura says.
“Their main message on that day was: We are a performance company. Show us how cotton can be a performance fiber. We want to expand our product line, and we’re interested in cotton.
“After that first meeting, they gave us eight weeks to develop a cotton product they could use in their line of sports apparel products. That’s not atypical as to how other companies develop products, but this was highly accelerated producing a product in eight weeks that usually takes several months, if not years,” Messura says.
“In addition to the highly technical tests we ran on these products, we also conducted wear tests. At the end of the day, no matter how many technical tests we run, the fiber is not going to become an apparel product unless the wearer enjoys wearing clothes made from the process,” he adds.
A number of professional athletes participated in the wear tests, via Under Armour’s marketing and development program. The most important of those wear tests was with Kevin Plank, founder and CEO of Under Armour. He wore the cotton products, without employees knowing these were cotton shirts around the office, and he loved the performance of the cotton shirts.
“After the eight week period and in the development process for the next few months, both cotton and Under Armour kept this partnership very much a secret. And, in what for the business world, was a remarkably short process Under Armour went from no cotton products to cotton being a big part of their sports apparel line,” Messura says.
“Under Armour is a huge company that moves quickly — it’s a battleship that moves like a speed boat. We covered a huge amount of ground from concept to product introduction in a short period of time.
“Along the way, we made an effort to educate the company. We took Under Armour executives to cotton farms and cotton gins, even introduced them to a few cotton farmers, as part of our education process,” Messura says.
“From that first meeting on June 9, 2009 until the end of April 2011, Under Armour went from zero cotton purchased to buying enough cotton to manufacture 10 million units of sports apparel clothes. Within three months Under Armour had gone back to their suppliers to re-order more cotton,” he adds.
The introduction of cotton products by Under Armour has influenced other companies to do the same. For example, Puma recently released a line of moisture management products for women golfers. This is an area in which cotton has taken a beating in recent years, Messura says.
“Even with high cotton prices, smart companies, combined with the research and product development programs at Cotton Incorporated, can still find opportunities. The Under Armour story is a tremendously successful story for cotton,” Messura says.