This story first appeared in USA Today.
It's not the suit.
The much-maligned suit worn by the U.S. speedskating team should never have been victimized, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, says in an exclusive interview. "It was a bit of a witch hunt that began to build," he says, in his first extensive interview since the Under Armour suit became a scapegoat for the failure of U.S. speedskaters to win Olympic medals. "The suit became the witch."
Plank is so certain that the "Mach 39" suit is a winner, he says Under Armour will continue to invest in it and tweak if until the 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea. And he's so confident that the suit can help the U.S. Speedskating team, that Under Armour on Friday announced it plans to not only renew its team sponsorship, but double its length through 2022.
"We're doubling down," says Plank. "We will not stick our heads in the sand. We want people to know that when we get knocked down, we get back up bigger, better and stronger."
Few well-meaning Olympic sponsors have undergone the kind of intense media and image scrutiny that Under Armour has over the past week, as the highbrow brand name suddenly got linked to Olympic-sized failure. "This brand was dragged through the mud," he says. "There was a lot of conjecture and speculation, but none of it based on fact."
For Plank, 41, the whole tumult has been a hugely humbling experience, he says, yet he adamantly refuses to point a finger of blame at anyone. "In no way, shape or form will we ever point fingers at the athletes. These guys have a ton of things going through their heads. There was no push back from us. We said, whatever will make the athletes more comfortable, we'll do."
U.S. Speedskating executive director Ted Morris says he's thrilled — and the skaters will be, too. "It's a testament to (Under Armour's) commitment and fire to keep working with us," he says.
But it hasn't been easy. Plank says that the night the suit brouhaha broke, he was up at 4 a.m., unable to sleep "sick to my stomach that the company I love was getting beat up. And I can't do anything about it but bite my lip and hope the facts come out."
After the team voted to switch suits — and fared no better — Plank insists, he did not celebrate or feel vindicated. "We remain patriots first," he says. "As I sat there watching the events on TV and my laptop, I'm wearing red, white and blue and an American flag."
CEO: UNDER ARMOUR WILL GET 'BIGGER, BETTER'
Perhaps no one on the planet knows the importance of brand image any better than Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank.
The carefully crafted image of his company's brand took a hard one to the gut last week when a super-duper Under Armour speedskating suit was suddenly the fall guy for lousy performances by the U.S. Speedskating team at the Winter Olympics. This kerfuffle got some clarity, of sorts, when the team voted to switch suits — and still finished out of the medals.
After several days of relative silence and lip-biting, Plank spent more than an hour on the phone with USA TODAY on Thursday, explaining, in some detail, what a difficult week this has been for him and for the Under Armour brand. More importantly, he openly discussed the early lessons learned and how Under Armour will emerge a better company because of it.
"Brands are all about trust," says Plank. "That trust is built in drops and lost in buckets. We felt we lost some of that trust with our consumers last week."
It's a bit early to assess the fallout. Plank insists there's been no immediate decline in Under Armour retail sales. Its stock price is virtually unchanged from what it was about one week ago, when media reports sniping at the suit first began to appear. But how do you measure a company's self-esteem?
That's hard. Plank says it was particularly hard at a previously scheduled town hall meeting at the company's Baltimore headquarters this week when a perplexed employee asked Plank: "What did we do wrong?"
Just hearing that question, Plank says, hurt him to the core. After all, that one employee was speaking for all 8,000. And the image of the $2.3 billion company that Plank founded 18 years was suddenly getting publicly whipped. Plank told the employee that Under Armour did nothing wrong at all. He reminded the employees in the room that Under Armour products are top-notch. "I asked them never to waiver," he says. "I asked them to believe in themselves."
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Under Armour went to Sochi with dreams just as big as many of the Olympic athletes that it sponsors. Despite its wide name recognition, Under Armour is still a runt compared with rival Nike — particularly on the international scene. Under Armour's international sales are only about 8% of its business right now, and Plank recently vowed that number would hit 12% by 2016.
It entered the China market only in the past few years but, already, Plank has eyes on tripling Under Armour's business there this year. And Sochi was supposed to be a helpful gateway for some of this international growth — a chance to get foreigners more familiar with the brand name.
And then skating PR debacle happened.
"We accept getting dust on ourselves," says Plank. "We'll come back taller, stronger, bigger and better."