Gini Dietrich

Five Things You Can Learn from the Under Armour Olympics Crisis

By: Gini Dietrich | March 17, 2014 | 

Five Things You Can Learn from the Under Armour Olympics CrisisBy Gini Dietrich

During this year’s Winter Olympics, Under Armour came under some serious fire.

The high-end sports clothing retailer designed a new uniform – a high-tech skinsuit called Mach 39 – for the speed skating team with the goal of breaking into international markets with the highly visible and global games.

When the team didn’t manage to get any medals, they blamed the uniforms for poor performance.

While it seems pretty ludicrous to blame a uniform for the team’s worst showing in 30 years…or maybe ever, the Under Armour engineers quickly made a switch and got the speed skaters into different uniforms.

When they continued to perform poorly, it became pretty evident it was not the fault of Under Armour or their new skinsuits.

But not before the retailer had a crisis on their hands.

A week had gone by – an eternity in today’s digital world – and the court of public opinion had heard only the uniforms were to blame.

Five Things Under Armour Did Brilliantly Well

Under Armour had two choices: Blame the U.S. team to save its reputation (which could paint them as a bunch of losers and create distaste with the American public) or go into full-on crisis communications mode.

They chose the second, and quite brilliantly managed their way out of something that could have been detrimental not only to the new product, but also to the entire organization.

Here is what you can learn from the retailer if you’re ever faced with a crisis of your own.

  • The communications team provided journalists, bloggers,  and producers access to their senior leadership team. No one was turned away and they answered every, single question.
  • Not once did an answer involve blaming the skaters. They quickly changed the uniforms and sent the Mach 39 back to the lab to be scrutinized for any flaw that could have hurt the U.S. team.
  • They kept the CEO engaged, but also enlisted other spokespersons. They split up the interviews and had several people talking to the media. This provided the all-access they wanted, but also didn’t require Kevin Plank to be the only face of the company.
  • Lindsay Vonn and Michael Phelps, Under Armour celebrity sports spokespersons, were enlisted to take interviews and speak on behalf of the company.
  • But the creme de la creme of the crisis management was when, at the end of the Sochi games, Under Armour renewed its sponsorship of the U.S. speed skating team through 2022.

While the stock fell 2.38 percent in the first week following the blame the Mach 39 received, the company rebounded on Wall Street and in the minds of the American public.

They continue to show their support of the team and will for many years to come.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • It was a smart approach and their approach shows me the most important thing: Nobody freaked out and fired off responses without thought and sincerity.

  • I’d hate to have seen what would have happened had it been the Russian team. Share prices are hard to rebound when you’re stuck in Siberia… 😉
    In all seriousness, this is why brands need to take a bigger stick and come out fighting against consumer stupidity.

  • JohnMTrader

    Two words Gini – OWN IT. Under Armour stepped up and owned the problem which could be quite an important lesson for companies who love to finger point and not take accountability. In their local market (Baltimore) – UA received nothing but praise and support too – proving that a well cultivated, loyal community can be a powerful crisis communication resource.

  • Is it wrong that there’s a part of me that kind of wants to see what would have happened if they HAD taken the “blame the athletes” approach? I mean, it does seem like quite a number of sports fans behave that way – love the team until they’re not performing well then berate their former favorite players – it would be funny (in an awful way) if a sponsor did it, as well.
    Though, no, I guess you’re right. It is better this way. 🙂

  • I called the CEO to investigate. He took my call from what sounded like an airport bathroom. I kept asking “Your suits are amazing our team just sucked right?” each answer was drowned out by what I swear was a purposefully timed toilet flush.

    They did a great job and I will continue to wear their Mach 39!

  • Eleanor Pierce would be important to know if it was the suit or if we just sucked. They could of done a commercial with the CEO speaking but holding white cue cards with what he really meant to say 8)

  • Howie Goldfarb Eleanor Pierce  They should have got the CEO to wear the suit and laugh as he tanned the butts of the athletes. 🙂

  • Danny Brown Howie Goldfarb Eleanor Pierce  There you go! Ha!

  • ClayMorgan  Nor did they hide under a rock and hope it would pass.

  • Danny Brown  And not hide against criticism. They had a team on the ground that immediately went in to investigate while they changed out the uniforms. Pretty incredible how they handled things.

  • JohnMTrader  Own it, is right! The fact that they’re seen as scrappy against The Man (Nike) even though they’re a two billion dollar company is pretty incredible. This is a great case study of why that is.

  • Eleanor Pierce  Isn’t there a Mastercard parody that does that?! I’m trying to remember where I saw it. And it WAS funny!

  • Howie Goldfarb  I kind of want to try one on now!

  • ginidietrich JohnMTrader I appreciated your analysis, Gini. It sounds like one of the keys was that everyone (the celebrity spokespeople, the senior execs, etc.) was adequately prepared to answer the questions. That takes forethought and agility. Pretty impressive.

  • biggreenpen They were pretty transparent about what they did, too. From a PR geek’s perspective, it was super impressive!

  • Eleanor Pierce Danny Brown Howie Goldfarb  Note to self, do not involve Ellie in client crisis communications plans.

  • In a crisis the external communication is important, but the internal communication and culture quality of a team is what in many ways makes or breaks a plan. What you laid out above clearly shows that the internal communication flow of UA was top notch. There was a single vision that everyone worked to, all working pieces sent out the same message and participated in a way that made the plan work. It’s really impressive to see something like that in action, especially from a rather large company.

  • JohnMTrader

    ginidietrich biggreenpen  Transparency. The new normal.

  • JohnMTrader

    LauraPetrolino  Excellent point, in this case internal communications was just as, if not more important than external.

  • I kind of wish you would have given me a heads-up that you would be using my photo modeling the suit, but I guess when it hit the internet it was fair game, huh? I liked it so much, it has taken the place of my Speedo at parties. 

    Under Armour did handle it quite well; but I’m also going to guess that contract for the team meant a lot to the team in dollars as well. There will probably be a lot of testing going on between now and the next Olympics I suppose.

  • Howie Goldfarb  Yes, Howie Goldfarb you look quite striking in the suit; I see you’ve been wearing it around the house….

  • I remember thinking “It’s the *suits* fault?? Are you SERIOUS!?” Lame. But yes, great control of the situation by this company. It doesn’t get much higher profile than the Winter Olympics. I think they owned it, but with a sly wink. How many people *really* believed it was the suits…??

  • LauraPetrolino Eleanor Pierce Danny Brown Howie Goldfarb  HA!

  • belllindsay  I think the first week of the Olympics they did think it was. That was ALL anyone was saying. Even Mr. D (who is my source of news information) told me they were thinking the suits played a significant role. The way they handled it, though? It would have been really easy to say, “Hey, you didn’t try them out before the Games” or “Come on! It can’t be the athletes, can it?” And they didn’t. I keep thinking about how Penn State swept their crisis under the rug for years and what it did to that institution.

  • bdorman264  It’s under Creative Commons. You can’t do anything about it now!

  • Kate Nolan

    So often I see something happening and think “What Would Gini do?”. In other words, when is the WWGD Spin Sucks swag coming?

  • Interesting. But isn’t it a failure that the mass public alone remembers this as the reason why the skaters failed? I agree with you that the timing was terrible on communicating this problem. 
    I will say it was definitely tricky not to blame the skaters and become labeled as “un-American” (even though we all know they wanted to say that, haha). 
    Speaking of getting Michael Phelps and other athletes to speak on their behalf, I think PRNewser reported on that pretty well. Sadly, I think PRNewser was right on it. Not their best move, but what else could they have done? It’s tricky.

  • JRHalloran  I’ll check it out. Thanks!

  • JRHalloran  Love your comment!

  • KateNolan

    LauraPetrolino  I wonder if that “single vision” is an effect of a really “together” communications strategy or just the UA culture overall. In other words, does the entire company believe in the UA vision and their communication approach reflects that or is it just a piece of their strategy? Either way, UA did an excellent job, but I’m always curious to see whether culture & communication are disparate pieces or a part of the whole.

  • ginidietrich Totally agree. It was a gold medal winning PR performance.

  • KateNolan LauraPetrolino  I think it has to be the overall culture, or at the very least executive team. A communication team alone can only do so much, their has to be buy in from all stakeholders.

  • ginidietrich  Haha, thanks!  🙂

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