Analysis: Can Under Armour score a slam dunk against Nike's Jordan with the new Curry Brand?

Under Armour has mounted a full-court press against Nike's Jordan Brand with the launch of the Curry Brand in partnership with NBA player Stephen Curry. Curry Brand will feature footwear, apparel, and accessories across multiple categories including basketball and golf, with continued category expansion in future seasons such as running and women's.

According to Under Armour, the Curry Brand is "a purpose-led performance brand with a mission to ensure every young person has equitable access to sport". This comes as the brand aims to engage children from low-income households who are participating in youth sports and offer access for the next generation of young athletes worldwide.

Curry Brand will focus on partnerships that will provide opportunity for youth sports in under-resourced communities, providing apparel and equipment, creating safe places to play while ensuring that all coaches are engaged in professional development. As Curry Brand develops its impact model and builds its portfolio of partners, it is committed to helping more than 100,000 young athletes by 2025. 

Can the Curry Brand outscore the Jordan Brand?

It is without a doubt that Curry is one of the popular basketball players in this era. According to a survey from YouGov between July to October this year, Curry is the second most famous basketball player after LeBron James in the US and is more popular among Millennials compared to Gen X or Baby Boomers. About 47% of Millennials have a positive opinion of Curry while the same can be said only for 38% of Gen X and 35% of Baby Boomers. 

While the launch of the Curry Brand can help Under Armour capture the younger crowd, the road to domination will not be easy, especially when going up against a well-established brand such as the Jordan Brand.

The Nike Brand, which has the Jordan Brand under its wing, raked in a total revenue of US$10.0 billion during the first quarter of its 2021 fiscal year ended 31 August 2020. Meanwhile, Under Armour reported US$1.4 billion in the third quarter of its 2020 financial year which ended 30 October and has not yet revealed its latest results.

Additionally, the Jordan Brand is not only popular in the basketball scene, but has also become one of the favourites in street fashion and even launched a collection with French football club Paris Saint-Germain. The Jordan Brand has also "dribbled" its way into the pop culture scene, working with Canadian rapper Drake and his lifestyle brand October's Very Own to launch Air Jordan collections. Drake even wrote a song titled "Jumpman". At the same time, the Jordan Brand is also represented by many renowned basketball players including Luka Doncic, Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, and Zion Williamson. 

According to Samir Dixit, MD, Brand Finance Asia Pacific, the Curry Brand is "lacking in its approach" and is attempting to use the time tested formula of Nike. However, this is limited by the lack of integration between the Under Armour and Stephen Curry brands, Dixit said. He added that the Curry Brand would also likely be limited to a specific segment for its primary appeal, which are the Millennials or youths.

"The Curry campaign is simply put 'an old wine in a new bottle'. There is nothing new in the overall thought. It brings an athlete and a brand together.  But there is a critical difference between the Jordan and the Curry campaigns," Dixit said.

According to him, Nike is demonstrating that Jordan needs a Nike to enhance his performance and this therefore links to the "You can do it" aspect of the Nike brand. Under Armour, on the other hand, seems to be "purely hinging on" the appeal of Curry to endorse its products in a "celebrity endorsement-like" manner. Dixit also explained that the Jordan Brand was not just about the use of a personality such as Michael Jordan. It also showcased Nike's shoe technological innovation too.

"Before the Jordan campaign back in the mid-80s, the sneaker was just a sneaker. Nike came and changed that forever. The Jordan campaign was about the shoe more than Jordan or perhaps the shoe was just as important an element in the campaign as Jordan was. They performed well together so there was a deep sense of partnership. The shoe was the enabler for Jordan’s performance," Dixit explained. Hence, this further deepened the belief that with Nike by your side, you could do anything.

Meanwhile, the Curry campaign plays on the "disruptive mindset" of the younger generation, specifically the "change the rules", "do it your way", and "stand apart" type of mindset, Dixit said. Although Curry happens to be the brand ambassador, he explained that the basic thought behind the latest initiative would work the same without Curry. "The only thing Curry brings to the table is perhaps his appeal and his status as a celebrity," Dixit added.

Jordan was a brand partnership that had lasted a few decades, and will continue with or without Jordan even being physically there. The Curry campaign is a celebrity endorsement of sorts and perhaps won’t be as long lasting, especially in current times.

On the other hand, R. Sasikumar, founder and CEO of sports marketing agency Red Card Global, believes that the journey to success might not be that tough for the Curry Brand. According to him, the Jordan Brand is a historical one and the group of consumers who have seen the brand being established and watched Jordan himself play have over the years become smaller. While Jordan might be a renowned basketball personality, he is not currently playing in the NBA, neither does he make the highlight reels or media headlines unlike Curry. Hence, despite being the challenger brand, being current poses an advantage to Curry. 

"Being current at the moment is [Curry's] advantage and the Jordan Brand is vintage. We aren't really comparing apples to apples here. Both have their different markets and are relevant during their timeframes. So I do not think it will be an uphill struggle for the Curry Brand," Sasikumar explained. He added that the Curry Brand is obviously tapping into a younger audience who are current NBA fans.

How can the Curry Brand one-up Nike?

In the same vein, Superunion's strategist Jackson Ong said the Jordan Brand experienced a dip years ago, as younger consumers lost touch with the man behind the legend. Therefore, the Curry brand can take advantage of its "new-ness" and explore the possibilities of content creation on new kinds of social media platform, such as TikTok and the likes of it.

"There is a real opportunity to speak the language of a new audience, without having to bear the burden of links to the past. But that being said, thanks to the recent runaway success of Netflix’s The Last Dance and a rekindled appreciation for retro; the Jordan Brand is slowly but surely coming back to the fore," he added.

Meanwhile, the Curry Brand's concept of accessibility to underprivileged youth also offers it an opportunity relative to the Jordan Brand, Prophet's senior partner Jay Milliken said. The company elaborated in a press statement that its efforts to reach low-income youths will begin in Oakland, California, where it will collaborate with local organisations such as Positive Coaching Alliance and Coaching Corps to offer professional development for every youth sports coach in the Oakland Unified School District and the Oakland Parks & Recreation Department. Oakland will then serve as a model for other regions. In contrast, Milliken said the Jordan Brand is not an accessible one, with an average pair of sneakers amounting to US$145. 

That said, the argument about the Curry Brand potentially appealing to the younger consumers might not hold true. "In the ultimate test of relevance with younger consumers, I asked both of my tween kids whether they would rather wear Jordan or Curry branded apparel and they both unanimously agreed that Jordan Brand would be their preference," he said.

Milliken added that just because Jordan and Curry are basketball players with their own brands, does not mean that they are comparable. "I think what Curry is trying to accomplish is closer to [partnerships such as] Lebron James with Nike, James Harden with adidas or Kawhi Leonard with New Balance.  What Jordan has accomplished from a branding perspective is pretty untouchable," Milliken added.

Is the logo a missed layup for the Curry Brand?

At first glance, the Curry Brand logo might seem like a squiggle compared to the Jordan Brand's iconic Jumpman logo. However, the former's logo does contain elements of Curry himself. There is an "S" in the logo which represents "Stephen" and the "C" represents "Curry". Coupled with the "high wing", the logo represents the "three" sign that Curry holds up as part of his three-pointer celebration.

under armour curry brand logo

While the Curry Brand's logo is not exactly a slam dunk like the Jordan Brand's, Superunion's Ong does not think that consumers will necessarily compare the two brands alongside each other in terms of a logo. 

"More importantly, the onus will fall on the communications and experiential activations that revolve around the Curry Brand. And as Curry’s own star power grows, so will the brand. Get all of these right, and it will be a real slam dunk," he said.

Similarly, Prophet's Milliken said while the new logo does not immediately appear to be distinctive, a lot of what its potential will depend on how it is activated. "The Jumpman logo is one of the most iconic images and logos in the world, not just the sports world so it is difficult to compare the Jumpman with the new Curry Brand logo," he added. 

In addition to how the logo is activated, the storytelling around it also matters. Red Card Global's Sasikumar said the Curry Brand has its work cut out for itself and it has to tell a story like what the Jordan Brand did with the Jumpman logo, which is a silhouette of Jordan stretching out towards the basket and going in for the dunk. 

"The shape and form is just a shape and form. If you do not tell a story around it, it does not really work. In my opinion, both [logos] cannot be compared. If you take Nike as an example, it is just a swoosh which became an iconic logo worldwide," he explained.

Will this help Under Armour rebound from past controversies?

Under Armour has had its fair share of controversies. Last year, the Baltimore-based company was sued by a former executive for racial discrimination and defamation. According to a The Baltimore Sun, the city’s daily newspaper, the African American executive alleged that Under Armour “disparaged him and treated him unfairly” compared to his white colleagues. That same year, the Wall Street Journal also reported that Under Armour was under federal investigation for its accounting practices, which examined if the company shifted sales from quarter to quarter to seem healthier. Separately in a surprise announcement, founder and then CEO Kevin Plank announced that he is stepping down, according to multiple media reports including CNBC.

Meanwhile in 2018, Under Armour was also embroiled in a sexual misconduct controversy when WSJ reported that the company is ending a longstanding company practice of charging visits to strip clubs on their corporate clubs. WSJ added that some top male executives breached company policy by "behaving inappropriately with female subordinates", adding that the women were invited to an annual company event based on their attractiveness.

When asked if the new Curry Brand can help turn Under Armour's brand image, Sasikumar said the company needs to be careful because the younger generation is cause driven. He explained that Millennials tend to stay away from brands that are not as "human-friendly" or "human-conscious" in the sense of how they run their business. Hence, it would be a challenge for Under Armour.

"But a good way of doing things is to adapt by using someone who is a modern day superhero or someone who is always performing beyond himself. In this case, Curry is a good role model and Under Armour can use that to rebrand itself and turn its image around," he explained.

Sasikumar added that these are the reasons why endorsements happen, and why consumers back the likes of Curry, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi. "What I like to call is borrowing their audience and borrowing their credibility. That's what brands are really doing," he said.

Agreeing with him is Superunion's Ong, who said Curry’s philanthropic efforts have been well-documented, with a clear vision of delivering lasting social impact across numerous avenues. Add in the fact that Curry has a relatively clean-cut look - by usual NBA standards - and you get a strong opportunity to bring back some much-needed positivity into the Under Armour brand, Ong said.

However, Prophet's Milliken does not think that the Curry Brand can or should be responsible for turning around any challenges that exist with the Under Armour brand. "Since the Under Armour logo will no longer appear on Curry shoes and products, the equity halo between Under Armour and Curry will harder to establish. The responsibility for strengthening the Under Armour master brand lies with Under Armour not with the Curry Brand," he explained.

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