Under Armour enters new marketing terrain with "The Martian"

Under Armour and "The Martian" enter new promotional territory

It's 2035 and Mark Watney — an earnest, muscled Mars mission astronaut — is depicted in a video running on a treadmill, skipping rope and lifting weights while dressed conspicuously in Under Armour workout gear.

Watney may be fictional, but he sure loves Under Armour. A release last week from the Baltimore-based sports apparel and footwear company — the real company — tells you so. It heralded the "historic partnership" in which Under Armour will provide training wear for the Ares III space mission — as if it weren't part of a fictional movie set to be released Oct. 2.

The videos and faux news release are part of an unusually detailed prerelease cross-promotion by Under Armour and 20th Century Fox for "The Martian," a Ridley Scott-directed film in which Watney, played by Matt Damon, is left stranded on Mars after a storm.

Under Armour has long worked strategically with Hollywood to boost its profile. Its product integration credits date to 1999 and Oliver Stone's football drama "Any Given Sunday," and since include "Friday Night Lights" (2004), "The Blind Side" (2009), "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012), "Lone Survivor" (2013) and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014). Under Armour teamed with Marvel Studios and costume designer Alexandra Byrne to create seamless base-layer garments for the main characters in this year's "Avengers: Age of Ultron."

Like its player sponsorship deals, Under Armour typically bets on winners — this year's Avengers installment was the No. 6-grossing movie of all time. And the early football movies were naturally connected to the brand's roots as a compression T-shirt maker. But the latest promotion stretches product integration beyond traditional boundaries.

For "The Martian," 3AM — an entertainment marketing company working with Scott, the director — has immersed Under Armour into a back story to promote the movie's upcoming release. Under Armour not only has its logo featured in the campaign, it is named in the short videos as the "Official Training Partner of the Ares Program." It is actually a player in the story — or at least the prestory.

"On a macro level, the world's brands and the world's entertainment are getting closer together," said Nick Phelps, global alliance director at Droga5, Under Armour's ad agency. "It's a prerelease focus in this case. We're using Under Armour as a way to get Mark Watney, Matt Damon's character, out into the world before the movie is released. The way to look at it is that we got him fit to send him into space."

Under Armour and Fox distributed a faux news release last week quoting Watney: "As brands go, I can't think of a better partner for this mission."

A teaser for the 2012 film "Prometheus" — also directed by Scott — similarly featured one of the actors remaining in character during a fictional "TED Talk" purportedly set in 2023.

If such promotions are effective, it's because they seem true to the product, said Matt Saler, director of sports marketing for Baltimore advertising and marketing firm IMRE.

"Matt Damon wearing an Under Armour shirt while training for a mission, that's done in a subtle way. It's not off brand," Saler said.

Under Armour is already selling T-shirts with an Ares logo on the front and "Bring Him Home" on the back.

The film promotion represents an "evolution," said Todd Montesano, Under Armour vice president for strategic alliances.

"We've done a lot of product integration, we've done a lot of partnerships with movie studios. Being integrated into the movie priors is something we haven't done before," Montesano said. "I think they saw what we have done maybe with our commercial 'Future Girl.' It's very futuristic, and I think you see that same sort of feel and tone in the video as you do with Matt Damon's."

"Future Girl" appeared in 2013 as part of Under Armour's "I WILL" campaign. It depicts an athlete who can change her uniform color with the swipe of a finger.

"The Martian" — a meeting of the red planet and the red carpet — is derived from a 2011 book with the same name by Andy Weir.

It's uncertain whether Under Armour will have a presence in the film itself.

"The storytelling around the Matt Damon piece is something that we all collaborated on," Montesano said. "There is not 100 percent certainty that we're in the movie today. We're not sure. There was product on set."

The collaboration originated from Hollywood. Chris Eyerman, creative director of 3AM, said his company tried to imagine what the world might look like in 2035 and "which brands would make sense. And Under Armour was probably the first one that we thought about. They're so much about hard work and training and preparation. That's kind of what being an astronaut is. It's 99.9 percent training and the other part is when you actually get to go up into space and go on a mission."

For years now, Under Armour has not had to persuade people to use their products in movies. Casting directors now call on the company, which has become hugely popular among athletes.

In many cases, according to Under Armour, it engages in high-level bartering with film company representatives. Under Armour may provide uniforms that give the movie an authentic feel. In return, the company receives popular-culture exposure.

"In a lot of these cases there's not a financial transaction," Montesano said. In the partnership with "The Martian," he said "there's no money that was paid."

Rather, he said, the arrangement is mutually beneficial because Under Armour and Fox can benefit by reaching each others' social media followers. Links to Damon's video are all over Under Armour's and Fox's websites, Twitter accounts and other outlets.

Under Armour's also cross-promoting the movie and movie apparel on its fitness-tracking apps — for which it says it has more than 140 million registered users. The Under Armour Record app features Damon's video, photos of the movie's cast, the movie's trailer and links to buy "official mission gear."

"The trade-off really was aggregating audiences and it wasn't any money exchanged," Montesano said. "We marketed it possibly to two different communities. I believe Fox studios probably has a community that they go after and they advertise and market, and we have a community of our own."

Product placements can be risky. Movie audiences have been known to groan when placements appear too often or seem out of step with the story.

"Too much of anything can turn someone off," said Michael E. Pfahl, a professor in Ohio University's sports administration department.

But movies theaters offer companies captive audiences.

"With DVR penetration over 50 percent, most consumers are now forwarding through commercials, making product placement in the program itself all the more valuable," said Jonathan A. Jensen, an assistant professor in the Girard School of Business at Merrimack College. "Under Armour realized this long ago by getting their product integrated into 'Any Given Sunday,' when it was still a fledgling brand back in the late '90s."

That movie remains a favorite of Montesano's. He also likes the suits Under Armour made for the heroes in "Avengers: Age of Ultron."

"We also sold [movie-themed] products — as well as it being one of the biggest box office hits ever," he said. "That doesn't ever hurt either, right?"

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