The arrival of HealthBox will serve as a fresh test of whether Under Armour can achieve its lofty ambition to transform from an exercise clothing brand into a health and fitness industry behemoth, one that its customers turn to for everything from sleep tracking to app-based workout coaching.
And while there is some logic to the gamble on HealthBox, Under Armour’s foray into wearables is somewhat risky. For starters, it is a latecomer to the category, with Fitbit and Jawbone already capturing a large share of the wristband market. Plus, as researchers at IDC note, the arrival of all-purpose wearable devices such as the Apple Watch may spell trouble for such gadgets whose sole functions are wellness-related. Shoppers may decide they no longer need a fitness-specific wearable device if they’re able to slap on a smartwatch that has some of those capabilities and much more. (This may in part explain why FitBit on Tuesday unveiled a smartwatch called Blaze that comes equipped with its latest fitness functions but also allows the wearer to check calls, texts and calendar alerts.)
When considering Under Armour’s potential to hit it big with tech devices, it’s instructive to think about rival Nike’s journey with fitness-tracking products. In 2012, it launched FuelBand, a wearable wristband that it said at the time was “designed to motivate and inspire users to be more active.” Only two years later, Nike discontinued the FuelBand. Today, it is touting its Nike+ Fuel app, an activity tracker that works only on iPhones. That shift in strategy would seem to suggest that Nike ultimately determined that it made more sense to focus on fitness software rather than hardware.
To be sure, the situations are not exact parallels: The Under Armour-branded gadgets are designed and built by veteran electronics maker HTC, whereas Nike’s hardware was developed in-house. But it still begs the question: Can Under Armour succeed in luring shoppers into a gadget ecosystem in a way that Nike — an athletic brand with extraordinary brand recognition and cachet — could not?
It’s been clear for several years now that Under Armour has been building toward becoming a more technology-centric company. It put up $150 million in 2013 to buy MapMyFitness, a service that helps users track and design their workouts. Last year, it acquired Endomondo, a Denmark-based personal training app, and MyFitnessPal, a nutrition tracker.
Under Armour has been dropping big bucks on these “connected fitness” brands because it believes that this category could be an extraordinary tool for steering its product development strategy and marketing tactics. UA’s apparel and footwear business recently passed Adidas to become the second-largest athletic apparel brand in the United States. Kevin Plank, the company’s chief executive, described the potential power of “connected” fitness at a September meeting with investors.
“Amazon claims that 40 percent of their sales are actually directly connected to what they call their ‘recommendation engine.’ And their recommendation engine is simply limited to people’s purchasing habits,” Plank said. “We not only know what people buy, but we also then understand how much they sleep, whether they exercise or not, and what they do if they do, how active they are and what they eat, and frankly, how they feel.”
Under Armour’s suite of HealthBox products is powered by its existing app called Record. Record will pull together in one place all the data from the UA Band, tracks activity and sleep; the UA Heart Rate, a chest strap to be worn during workouts that allows for calculating calories burned; and the UA Scale that measures weight and body fat. The gadgets will also be sold individually.
Connecting everything up to Record is likely an attempt by Under Armour to encourage you to commit to its brand across a wide range of wellness products. Just as many Apple and Android users find it simpler to stick with one operating system or the other across their desktop, tablet and smartphone, it is likely that Under Armour hopes that Record will become a go-to if you want all your wellness data to synchronize.
In addition to HealthBox, Under Armour also unveiled at the annual CES trade show Tuesday a smart sneaker called the UA SpeedForm Gemini 2 Record Equipped that has an embedded sensor measuring time, distance and other aspects of a run.