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Under Armour or Under Performer?

If I ran into an Under Armour executive on the street tomorrow, I’d offer a solemn handshake and a slow, meaningful nod of the head – the sort of gesture you convey when consoling someone who has experienced a loss or hardship and there’s nothing you can do to make it better.

Under Armour is indeed experiencing hardship and one not many other brands can relate to. Its perception of being impeccable performance gear, the very essence of who they are as an athletic brand, is being questioned on a global scale.

As Olympic viewers undoubtedly know, things aren’t going so well for the U.S. Speedskating team in Sochi. Fitted with custom-made Under Armour suits touted to be the fastest speedskating suits ever made, the team has earned zero medals. Murmurs around the ice rink name the suits as the problem. Those murmurs quickly turned into international news coverage and now Under Armour is facing an attack on its quality – and quality is what the brand hangs its hat on.

Sadly, it’s quite likely no one will know if the suits really did make the speedskaters slower or if it was a myriad of other factors. Some experts say that likely even the fleeting doubt in an athlete’s mind could wreak enough psychological havoc to impact performance. Regardless, both U.S. Speedskating and Under Armour need to conduct a bit of damage control.

Under Armour is, so far, handling things well on the PR front. The company is standing by the suit’s design while not being overly defensive. Under Armour has two stakeholder groups it should address in this scenario – its customers and its athletic partners, like U.S. Speedskating. For its customers, the best thing Under Armour can do is to keep doing what it’s done for years – provide a reliably high-quality product.

Under Armour’s partners will need more direct attention – the brand should be an open book and divulge all research and development information that could help assure U.S. Speedskating (and any other inquiring professional athletic partners) that it did everything within the athletes’ best interests. If there were any hiccups in the production of these suits, they need to own up to those as well. Open, honest and private dialogue – one-on-one with its partners – will help repair relationships with this key stakeholder group.

U.S. Speedskating has a different battle to embark upon – one with its sponsors. Although no official word has been put out by the organization or athletes themselves, it’s unusual for an athletic organization to vilify a major supporter. Unless they jump to Under Armour’s defense, their silence may rub other sponsors the wrong way. No one wants to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorships only to have their name dragged through the mud. These concerns should be addressed in the same open, honest and private dialogue part of its conversations with Under Armour post Olympics.

Luckily for both the outfitters and the skaters, Americans will likely forget all about the Olympics in a few months. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some headlines for the 2018 Olympic Games read a bit like coverage of a red carpet event – “Who are they wearing?”

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