Table of Contents:
- Why Stephanie Linnartz left Marriott to become the CEO of Under Armour
- Where Under Armour fits in the competitive landscape of sports apparel
- How social influencers help tell your brand story
- How the sportswear business compares to hospitality
- What it’s like working alongside a founder as a new CEO
- How Stephanie Linnartz is approaching loyalty programs at Under Armour
Under Armour’s pivot to growth
STEPHANIE LINNARTZ: The competitive landscape in sports apparel and footwear is quite complex. It’s not just Nike and Adidas. There’s lots of other smaller players that are growing rapidly. There’s the Lulus and the Hokas, et cetera.
You’re going to see Under Armour leaning more into sports style and shoes.
You think about what gives a brand cultural currency. You very rarely see a line around the block for the latest drop of a hoodie.
I have two teenagers, one of whom is a teenage daughter, and I’ve taken her to a couple Taylor Swift concerts. So yeah, I can say I’ve seen the Taylor Swift effect. It’s pretty incredible.
SAFIAN: That’s Stephanie Linnartz, CEO of Under Armour.
The first woman CEO of a major sportswear company, Stephanie took the reins earlier this year, coming over from Marriott International.
I’m Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of the Flux Group and host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response.
I wanted to talk with Stephanie because Under Armour is an iconic entrepreneurial success story, yet lately has struggled. Her task is to implement a “pivot back to growth,” as she puts it.
Tapping into her experience as president at Marriott, she is applying lessons about product segmentation and brand strategy that can be instructive for any scale effort.
SAFIAN: I’m Bob Safian and I’m here with Stephanie Linnartz, the CEO of Under Armour. Stephanie, thanks for joining us.
LINNARTZ: Great to be with you, Bob, and wonderful to see you again.
Why Stephanie Linnartz left Marriott to become the CEO of Under Armour
SAFIAN: You and I first met when you were an executive at Marriott. You were a guest on the show during the pandemic, talking about the impact on the hospitality business. And then earlier this year, you made a shift signing on to become the CEO of Under Armour — in fact, the first woman CEO of a major sportswear company. What made you make this change?
LINNARTZ: I spent the majority of my career at Marriott International, 25 years, which was absolutely wonderful. But earlier this year, I decided to take my own advice about the benefits of taking risk, and I went for it. And I have just absolutely loved my first, almost seven months at the company.
SAFIAN: I heard you had dinner with Steph Curry in San Francisco last week?
LINNARTZ: I did. I had almost a three hour dinner with Steph. We have a fabulous line with Steph Curry — basketball shoes, but also apparel and accessories. We resigned our deal with him earlier this year, a long-term deal. He’s actually the president of the Curry brand, and he’s a very big shareholder as part of this deal. We had a nice dinner talking about the great future ahead for both of us. And I have so much admiration for him as a human being as well as an athlete.
SAFIAN: Hanging out with star athletes and coaches, was that part of the appeal? Although I guess for you it would need to be an LSU person to really get the most excited.
LINNARTZ: I’m a diehard LSU fan. My husband’s from Baton Rouge, so I’ve really learned to love the Tigers. But no, I mean, sure, that’s the fun aspect of the job. And there was many fun aspects of working at Marriott International…was able to travel to something like 75 countries and see the world. But that’s not really what drew me to Under Armour. What drew me to Under Armour was the incredible growth opportunity.
I think about Under Armour in three chapters. There was chapter one — get big fast, grow, grow, grow, 20% growth year on year. Chapter two — which was a time to stabilize, a little bit of a rougher time, but where we got some good systems and processes in place and some good work was done. And I’m blessed to lead chapter three, which is the pivot back to growth and a new era for the company.
Where Under Armour fits in the competitive landscape of sports apparel
SAFIAN: You’ve taken on this role at a time when the giants in the industry are struggling a little bit. Nike’s in a little bit of a lull, and Adidas is trying to bounce back from the Kanye West Yeezy troubles. Does that mean it’s a difficult environment for any sports brand, including Under Armour? Or does their trouble present an opportunity for you?
LINNARTZ: The competitive landscape in sports apparel and footwear is quite complex. It’s not just Nike and Adidas. There’s lots of other smaller players that are growing rapidly — the Lulus and the Hokas, et cetera. But I think Under Armour is uniquely positioned to win.
The brand has grown to be in over a hundred countries. We have close to 1800 stores. We have thousands of schools and many athletes beyond Steph Curry.
You talk to Jordan Spieth — he is drier, he is cooler, he is playing better golf because he’s an Under Armour athlete and wears our gear.
There’s very few brands that have real authenticity on the court, the pitch, the field. Athletes, athletic directors, coaches…they love Under Armour because of the performance aspect of our brand.
At the same time, there’s a big untapped opportunity as we lean more into sports style and grow into new spaces. It’s growing more into footwear, more into women.
SAFIAN: You recently announced that fashion designer John Varvatos was joining Under Armour as the chief design officer.
LINNARTZ: Where we’re trying to lean into more, while staying dedicated to the performance nature of our brand, is sports style. And I think John is going to help stretch us and grow us. He’s such a, not only talented designer, but really loves the brand.
You’re going to see Under Armour leaning more into shoes that you can wear with a pair of jeans when you go out after you practice.
You think about what gives a brand cultural currency. You very rarely see a line around the block for the latest drop of a hoodie or a piece of apparel. You think about what’s sold on the aftermarket, it’s really sneakers, handbags, and watches. We’re still going to make amazing apparel and we’re going to make more sports style apparel. But we think there’s an inextricable link to building brand heat for Under Armour, particularly here in the United States, around really unlocking our potential with footwear and particularly “sneakers.”
SAFIAN: I heard that early on in your time there, you tried on every item of women’s clothing that Under Armour makes.
LINNARTZ: Yeah, I did. We are doing less than 25% of our sales to women. And I wanted to say, get some firsthand experience — why, what’s going on? And it was actually during my first month on the job, Kevin Plank, our founder and executive chairman came into my office and I said, Kevin, I’ve done something and know something in Under Armour, you don’t know. And he said, what could that possibly be, Stephanie? He’s got a great sense of humor. And I said, well, I just spent the past couple hours trying on all our women’s clothing and I want to give you some feedback on where we’re doing some things quite well, but where we have a lot of opportunity to improve. And so, there’s nothing like trying the clothes on — the fit, the finish, the feel. And so I thought it was really important if I was going to talk about growing the brand for female consumers, if I put the shoes, the clothing on my own body. Kevin had a good laugh, cause he had not ever tried on all of our women’s clothing.
SAFIAN: And you are particularly focused on opportunities for serving women athletes.
LINNARTZ: I think it’s an untapped opportunity for Under Armour. It’s pretty amazing when you think about the viewership that female athletics is starting to get. The largest crowd for a female sporting event happened earlier this year with 92,000 people for a volleyball tournament. You think about that at the NCAA finals this year … I think it was close to 10 million people watch the finals. There’s an opportunity for us to market to women differently. Of course, leaning into female athletes to be ambassadors for us, but to also leaning into social influencers as we start making more sports style apparel and footwear. Think about that — a social influencer or actress who’s sitting courtside every game. They may not be an athlete, but they love athletics and how can we leverage opportunities like that to tell our brand story.
How social influencers help tell your brand story
SAFIAN: I have to ask you about this Taylor Swift/Travis Kelce phenomenon going on in the NFL and its impact on marketing and on brand.
LINNARTZ: Yeah, the whole Taylor Swift thing is just incredible. I have two teenagers, one of whom is a teenage daughter, and I’ve taken her to a couple Taylor Swift concerts. So yeah, I can say I’ve seen the Taylor Swift effect. It’s pretty incredible — about the jerseys that are being sold and tickets that are being sold because of the Taylor Swift phenomenon.
It’s the way the world works these days, right? I mean, the way that you can market through Instagram, TikTok, et cetera, through social influencers is incredible, including celebrities. I mean, it’s hard to argue there’s a bigger celebrity these days than Taylor Swift. So I think that’s just an example on steroids, right? Well before that happened, we were thinking about, of course we use our athletes as a way to tell our brand story and drive sales and love for the brand, but it’s amazing how many social influencers are out there with millions of followers and can help tell our brand story.
I think you have to have a multi-tiered approach with the big names and at the very same time, a network approach that is people who maybe aren’t as famous, but who can help you build your business.
SAFIAN: Half of your leadership team are women, which doesn’t happen in all companies. Some women executives want to talk about gender, some don’t. I’m not a woman leader, I’m just a leader, period. How do you think about it?
LINNARTZ: Well, I think about the fact that I’m a woman. I mean, that is a reality, right? And as a woman, and as a woman who had a very busy career raising children, I have a set of life experiences that I think other people can relate to, particularly women. So I don’t shy away from the fact that I’m a woman. At the same time, there’s aspects of my life and leadership style that have nothing to do with my gender. I lean into all aspects of my life and my leader, and some of them are uniquely one way because I’m a woman and some are not. So I think about it that way.
SAFIAN: Under Armour has had an incredibly successful entrepreneurial run, but as Stephanie points out, new opportunities are waiting, as there are for so many businesses, whatever their stage of scale.
After the break, we’ll hear how she’s applying lessons she learned at Marriott in unexpected ways. We’ll be right back.
SAFIAN: Before the break, we heard Under Armour CEO Stephanie Linnartz talk about the need to pivot for growth, even once you’ve scaled. Now, she digs into the details, from product segmentation to client engagement, applying lessons she learned as the president at Marriott International.
Plus, what it takes to work alongside a founder, and more.
How the sportswear business compares to hospitality
It is such an interesting landscape that you’re playing in, cause you’ve got these giants like Nike and Adidas. And then you’ve got Lululemon that’s coming at you from another side. And as you mentioned, you’ve got these fighter brands like Hoka and Bandit and Tracksmith and whatever, coming from the bottom. At Marriott, you had multiple brands that you used in different categories. That hasn’t necessarily happened in the sportswear business. How do you think about it being similar or different than the way that was approached in the hospitality business?
LINNARTZ: Marriott International — we had 31 different brands, everything from Ritz Carlton and St. Regis and W down from a lower price point, Courtyards and Fairfields. So at Under Armour, the primary brand is Under Armour. Of course, we do have some lines like the Curry brand and The Rock line that are connected to Under Armour. One of the things we need to focus on is better segmentation in terms of the product pyramid. So the brand can all be Under Armour. We have a lot of “good” level product. We need to make more “better” and “best” product.
And then where we sell, it needs to be not different than some of the big players you talked about. There’s full price stores at Main and Main, and then there’s outlet stores and retailers that you work with. So we need to be more disciplined around our product segmentation, even if it’s under one brand, so that we’re selling only our best stuff in our brand houses and on our website. And then there’s a different part of the product pyramid that’s sold in other channels.
SAFIAN: Are there things about Marriott that you’re trying to bring to Under Armour?
LINNARTZ: Under Armour, it’s not just about the product. Of course you have to have products at the center, but I think about: what is it like when you go into an Under Armour store?
You have to have hospitality, you have to have great service, you have to have knowledgeable salespeople, just like you do in a hotel. And so the warmth and the hospitality and retail, to me, is the same as the warmth and the hospitality in the hotel business. We had to have a world-class website at Marriott. We have to have a world-class website and app at Under Armour. In all of these consumer facing brands, it’s about the product, but it’s also about the service and the emotional connection to the brand.
What it’s like working alongside a founder as a new CEO
SAFIAN: You’re working alongside Under Armour founder, Kevin Plank. And a founder’s influence can be so strong for good, but sometimes it can also be hard for them to let go or for them to accept change. How’s that relationship, so far, met your expectations and what’s been unexpected?
LINNARTZ: Kevin Plank and I are off to a great start. The first 12 and a half years of my time at Marriott, Bill Marriott was the CEO. Many Marriott family members work in the business. So while it’s not exactly the same as Under Armour, there are parallels on that front.
I think the pros way outweigh the complications. And it’s not easy every day. It does make it challenging sometimes. It is different to be in this situation than maybe running another type of company where there’s not a founder involved. That’s absolutely true. But I think that there’s nothing that matches the passion of a founder — a true entrepreneur who started from very humble beginnings and built a multi-billion dollar company. Kevin is a great asset that I have as a CEO to help inspire the team, inspire our athletes. And so, he and I are finding our way together. I mean, he’s our executive chairman, and he’s our brand chief, but we’re finding our lanes and our way as we work together.
There is nothing I’ve wanted to try or do or experiment with that he has said no to. And at the same time, he is helping me lean in in places where he has strengths. He has some really good thoughts on product, as an example.
I give Kevin Plank a tremendous amount of credit for his commitment to Baltimore. We’re building a spectacular new headquarters here that is going to be the most sustainable corporate headquarters in America. Mass timber, geothermal heating, 3,800 solar panels. We’re reclaiming rainwater. It is spectacularly beautiful, and also deeply committed to one of our core values, which is to act sustainably.
SAFIAN: You run marathons, I understand.
LINNARTZ: Well, I think I’ve done more half marathons of late, but I do like to run. I am a big runner.
SAFIAN: Building a brand and a business is more like a marathon, a long race than a sprint. But investors often want near term results, which I think is one of the most difficult challenges of being a public company CEO. How do you think about pacing yourself in this new role as a CEO?
LINNARTZ: Sometimes I think it’s more like interval training. I’m running Under Armour for the long term. I realize the pressures of quarterly earnings and all that, but every day the long-term success of this company. So that’s always at the top of my mind. But it’s important to have wins along the way, not just for Wall Street, but for the team. People need to see some wins on the board to get people psyched up. For myself personally, you mentioned exercise…I think one of the great things about exercise is that it helps you through stressful times. So I do like to run and I like my Peloton. I am very into meditation. I will always love to travel. It’s one of my great loves, and spend time with my family. So those are the things I lean into to keep myself as balanced and fresh and energized for what’s going to be a very, very tough job, exciting job, great job. But I recognize, also, tough job.
SAFIAN: What’s at stake right now for Under Armour?
LINNARTZ: I think about the teammates, the employees that work for Under Armour, their future, their opportunities. And I want to be able to leave a company that’s stronger and healthier with more opportunities. If I focus on that, the rest will happen.
How Stephanie Linnartz is approaching loyalty programs at Under Armour
SAFIAN: You oversaw the creation of the Marriott Bonvoy program, which is one of the largest loyalty programs anywhere. How are you thinking about approaching loyalty and customer engagement when it comes to Under Armour?
LINNARTZ: So Marriott Bonvoy was the backbone of our consumer strategy. It started many decades ago, and we grew it into this 180 million member program. It was about the emotional connection to the company and to the brands. We would bring people to the Super Bowl. You could exchange your Marriott Bonvoy points for Uber.
And much of it was experiential. And it wasn’t just about points for hotel rooms. A lot of people would stay at Courtyard Hotels to then get those points to take a Ritz-Carlton vacation. So fast forward to Under Armour. We just launched Under Armour Rewards. So, I’m back at the beginning of this journey. And of course it’s going to be about points for merchandise. But to get people to sign up, we said, we’ll have a sweepstake, and some winners can come spend half a day with Steph Curry in Baltimore.
You’ll get early drops to the newest Curry basketball shoe or the newest Under Armour X, Y, Z. It will be about things we can do with our thousands of teams and hundreds of athletes. And so, there’s a lot, again, I can pull forward from my experience at Marriott about how you make a loyalty program sticky and emotional, then that’s what we’re going to do with UA rewards. I see it as being the cornerstone of our consumer engagement strategy here.
SAFIAN: How did you go about introducing yourself to the team at Under Armour?
LINNARTZ: Well, one of the things I did early on, before I even started, is I went undercover and started visiting stores. There’s nothing, just like I used to tour hotels, there’s nothing like getting out into the stores and talking to the teammates at the front line.
I did get on the road, once I was announced as the CEO, got out to the stores, started meeting with our athletes, meeting with athletic directors. I just recently got back from a eight day, 10 city trip to Europe where I was meeting not only with our teammates, but visiting with our distribution partners. The big trip coming up to Asia, where I’ll meet with our factories and our suppliers. There’s nothing more important than asking questions so I can learn more about what people think of the brand, being open to listening to that more, sometimes tougher feedback.
SAFIAN: Well, Stephanie, this has been great. Thank you so much for doing this.
LINNARTZ: Thanks, Bob.
SAFIAN: Stephanie doesn’t describe herself as a “refounder” at Under Armour. She’s too gracious for that, especially given founder Kevin Plank’s continued influence at the company.
But the reality is, every business has to remake itself over and over, to maintain its relevance over time, and to reach the next level of scale and impact.
I’m Bob Safian, thanks for listening.