Under Armour is Deploying an Army of Super Nerds to Turn Your Emotional Purchases Into Science

Published on December 12, 2019

Think Under Armour just sells fancy sports wear? Think again.

Or at least that’s the thinking at the company’s Global Consumer Insights division — which deploys a small army of super nerds to parse data on all things clothing and the skinny on what, when, and where (no pun intended) consumers wear it.

At MIT Sloan Retail Conference Grit Daily caught up with Dwane Morgan, Director of Global Consumer Insights at Under Armour to take a deeper dive into the retail giant’s data treasure trove.

Before starting at Under Armour, Morgan’s 10+ years working on understanding consumer behavior helped propel Morgan into his career as a buyer for The MAY Department Stores Company before he went back to MIT Sloan to earn his MBA.

After graduate school, I decided to get into consulting and worked for the Boston Consulting Group on a variety of projects across industries,” Morgan told us.

But he emphasized two major take-aways from his time with BCG:

Ultimately that experience reinforced two things — I was and am passionate about sports and I wanted to work for a company that got me closer to that, and I wanted to get back to the industry side of things so I would work not only on the strategy but also be there for the implementation. As a result, my next step was kept me in the Boston area as I joined the Corporate Strategy & Insights team at Converse Inc.”

GD: How would you summarize the overall consumer behavior you spent time studying?

DM: Across all of these experiences, I was constantly reminded that data, and accurately capturing and interpreting that data is critical to success. It was also clear that consumer behavior when it comes to brand affinity and purchase is not always rational. That by itself is where the adventure begins. You add the dimension that sport is often synonymous with strong emotions and the result is decision making that fluid and very dynamic.

Of course that doesn’t mean that you cannot predict behavior, but it does mean that you need to understand those emotional and functional product elements that drive purchasing decisions. 

Now at Under Armour, that is the adventure I face daily. How to navigate a dynamic consumer landscape across different countries and different sport categories where both our brand penetration and our competitor set can be very different.

Onto Under Armour

As Director of the Global Consumer Insights team, Morgan’s team helps the organization make informed decisions. While it’s a broad statement, but with the range of questions and internal teammates we work with really helps run the gamut.

From our global quantitative brand tracking studies to understanding brand sentiment, to the qualitative in-home ethnographers where we are able to spend time with individuals to really learn about them on a personal level.”

At a high level, according to Morgan, “the quant side will confirm what is happening, but you often need to supplement that with qual to really understand ‘why.'”

GD: How do you integrate research initiatives into the business?

DM: Our research initiatives to help us address both current business questions as well as to proactively understand the marketplace in a holistic manner. Having the opportunity to do that research with a focus on active individuals whose passion for sport, health and fitness continues to be an exciting journey.

GD: How does the Consumer Insights team play into the organization’s research initiatives?

DM: Consumer Insights is the internal research arm for the organization. Under Armour was established based on a product technology that was superior to what existed in the marketplace at the time — moisture wicking baselayer. At the time, the standard product being used was cotton.

The company didn’t have an official Insights team at the time but the CEO was a football player at the University of Maryland and he observed that cotton was so poor at wicking moisture that he and his teammates routinely changed out a soaking wet cotton T at half time for a dry one. When he graduated he created the first HeatGear T and the rest is history.

We refer to that as an “unmet need.” His teammates didn’t necessarily tell him that they wanted something better but their actions spoke volumes.

GD: How would you describe the Consumer Insights team in terms of potential job candidates?

DM: Today, the job of Consumer Insights is two-fold:

First, to continue to understand athletes and active consumers across the globe. By understanding what their active lives we are able to continue to find Unmet Needs and work with our product and innovation teams to determine if there are commercial opportunities to solve those needs.

Next, we conduct a wide array of research. From quant to qual we continuously work to help ensure that our products and messaging are aligned to our target consumer. In essence, we put the consumer first in everything that we do.

GD: What role has technology played in the recent changes you have seen throughout the retail industry?

DM: Technology has played a massive role in the retail industry. It has helped consumers be better informed about the brands, products and price points that are available to them globally. That means that brands have to high quality products as well as messaging that cuts above the clutter. It has also helped brands to innovate in their manufacturing processes which results in more sustainable products as well as price points that are more favorable for consumers.

In roles like mine specifically, technology allows us to do things like track our brand sentiment across the globe with ease.

For example, in years past many brands would set up programs where individuals waited outside of stores with clipboards to get consumer feedback when someone left a store.

Today, we can use beacon technology in our stores to text you a link to a survey. We can access may more stores and many more consumers at a fraction of the time and cost.

GD: What is the greatest opportunity you see from the “digital revolution” that is happening in the clothing industry?

DM: Information access. Consumers can access everything they need to know about a brand or a product from the palm of their hand. That means that they can make well-informed decisions.

Of course, there are still many industries — such as footwear and apparel — where many purchases are strongly rooted in emotion rather than just data.

But, that is again why the digital revolution creates such a great opportunity.

Do you have the best products OR the best storytelling?

Consumers have access to all of the messaging that brands make public and ultimately use that info to drive their purchase decisions.

GD: What is the biggest challenge you see from the “digital revolution?” How have you seen companies struggle when it comes to implementing new technologies and/or adapting existing technologies/processes?

DM: The biggest challenge is for consumers to be able to always identify if the info that they are seeing about a company or a product is real. There are so many sources of information available to us and sometimes those sources are in direct opposition.

GD: What, in particular, what is Under Armour doing to use tech that just wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago?

DM: Like many companies in this space, Under Armour is taking a holistic view at data from disparate sources and aligning them to get a complete picture of the consumer journey. That wasn’t possible even just a few years ago but today with the proliferation of credit cards, email addresses, and even apps that help link the dynamic web of consumer interactions with a brand, we can best understand that complete journey drive the experience that our consumer wants and needs.

GD: What do you think the biggest differences will be in the industry 10 years from now?

DM: I think that the biggest difference in the next ten years will come on the manufacturing side. Footwear and Apparel has historically been a very labor-intensive manufacturing process but we have seen huge strides to automating those processes in recent years.

As that process improves, so does the speed that brands are able to update their products. That could have implications not only on the speed that brands are able to react to trends but also to where brands decide to have their products manufactured. The brand that cracks the code first will be able to set a new standard for consumer expectations and providing them with the goods and services that they want most.

Looking for more expert insight? Check out Grit Daily’s Spotlight. 

Jennifer Grady Burgos is a Columnist at Grit Daily. Based in Boston, she is the Assistant Director of Media Relations MIT Sloan School of Management. 

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