Slow warm-up readies market for shoe debut


Like any good tease, it started subtly.

First, back in July, came a suggestive sound: a clickety clack of something on concrete heard at the end of television commercials. Soon followed a glimpse, a piece of a product appearing in print ads. Last week came the punch line.

On display at sporting goods stores throughout the country - encased in glass for all to see, but not yet touch - is the creation Under Armour Inc. has spent the last nine months tantalizingly unveiling on TV and the Internet and in magazines.

It's a shoe. A football cleat, to be exact.

A year "is a long time for the mystery," said Erik Gordon, an assistant professor of marketing at the Johns Hopkins University, about the planned product launch in June. "This had better be something where people look at it and go `wow.'"

Under Armour's foray into the cleat business is as much about the evolution of New Age marketing and the growing popularity of youth football as about the sportswear company itself, which went public last fall in one of the most successful new stock offerings in years.

Under Armour all but invented the market for perspiration-wicking shirts, but now it will vie for consumers with the much more established companies in the $15 billion athletic footwear industry, the Nikes and Reeboks of the world.

Under Armour hopes to sell about $8 million worth of football cleats this year, and says that's just a start.

It is all the more reason for the company to try to create a buzz among young people in a campaign much different from standard player endorsements of years ago.

"The type of campaign that we launched was intentional, we were trying to spread it virally," said Steve Battista, vice president of brand marketing at the Baltimore company, whose in-house team creates its advertising. "We need marketing and branding to last a lot longer than a 30- or 60-second commercial."

Online, bloggers have debated the shoe's potential. Teenagers are spreading rumors that their older brothers have gotten early access to prototypes. And Under Armour has been inundated with e-mails and calls from people all wanting to know more.

"It's a teaser campaign," said Roland T. Rust, chairman of the department of marketing at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "You give people a slight glimpse to try to create interest and curiosity."

With the public more knowledgeable, and more cynical, about advertising, word-of-mouth has become the "most powerful and effective marketing tool," surpassing celebrity endorsements, said Ken Bernhardt, a Regents' Professor of Marketing at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University.

Creating word-of-mouth hype by dragging out a launch or selectively revealing bits of information has become the favored means of promotion for products, especially those pitched to young people, from Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox to the Harry Potter books.

"If your friend or someone you know through a blog ... says something about a cool new product, you know they're objective and therefore, it's a much more effective message," said Bernhardt, adding that the Internet has helped word-of-mouth marketing take off. "In the past, maybe somebody really interested in the product category might tell 10 or 20 people, they now have the capability to tell hundreds and even thousands with blogs."

Under Armour unveiled the shoe last weekend at stores including Dick's Sporting Goods and The Sports Authority, but it's still holding a few cards in hand. On April 29, the first commercials for the cleats, priced from $45.99 for kids' versions to $109.99 for the super high-end styles, will air on television. The official product launch is June 3, though "pre-ordering" online and in stores already will have begun.

Friday, Under Armour's Battista and other creative-team members, including Director Marcus Stephen, were putting the finishing touches on the spots at Producers Video in Baltimore. They were shot using new technology that will show the shoes in super-slow-motion, said Rip Lambert, president of the production company.

"We're trying to get the consumer to be excited about this launch," Lambert said.

There is the risk of being too mysterious in a campaign. Nissan launched its Infiniti cars in the United States with commercials featuring little more than nature scenes, leading former Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry to lambaste it as a "bizarre advertising campaign in which you never actually saw the car. Really."

Said Gordon of Johns Hopkins, "You can be so cryptic that people don't get it at all."

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