This Global Brand Marketer’s Winning Intensity Has Helped Multiply Under Armour’s Success

Adweek's 2015 Brand Genius winner for apparel

While Adrienne Lofton has worked as a marketer for global brands like Levi's and Target, it's experience from her college years that gives her an edge. In the mid-'90s, Lofton was captain of Howard University's NCAA Division I volleyball team. Marketing, she said in a 2010 interview, "is no different from being an athlete—knowing your path, setting it early and accomplishing it."

Lofton's athletic drive has never served her better than at her current gig as svp of global brand marketing for Under Armour—a position in which she's merited inclusion in 2015's class of Brand Genius honorees. Much like Lofton, the brand was an underdog that worked hard and made it big.

The company got its start in 1996 when founder Kevin Plank began selling his performance gear out of the trunk of his car. In keeping with that theme of determination, Under Armour has achieved its colossal brand recognition by signing up highly driven and inspirational athletes and performers before they make it big, and then accompanying them over the top. Golf wonder kid Jordan Spieth, dancer Misty Copeland and Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry—all were Under Armour's underdogs who became champions.

And thanks to Lofton, the messaging behind these partnerships is confident and inspirational. Under Armour's "I Will What I Want" campaign, for example, brims with determination, especially for women athletes and consumers. "Inside of the words 'I Will' is the motivation that we want to deliver at every single turn," Lofton says. "It's about allowing women to have the platform to show that they can absolutely break barriers, they can absolutely set records, they can absolutely be some of the best in the world."

In one spot, the American Ballet Theatre's Copeland whirls and twirls in a dazzling display as a voiceover, taking the form of a rejection letter from a dance academy, catalogs the criticisms she endured—and ignored.

The "I Will What I Want" campaign won the Cyber Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions Festival in June and a Gold Effie. Under Armour was also honored with the Clio Sports Brand Innovation Award.

Instead of taking marketing's obvious path and talking up its athletic apparel, Under Armour, under Lofton's leadership, has kept the focus on the athlete—the "human spirit which won't allow itself to be denied," observes Boston University marketing professor Judy Austin.

Under Armor won't allow itself to be denied, either. Thanks in part to its inspirational marketing, the brand has already lapped Adidas in U.S. sportswear sales, and is now nipping at the mighty Nike's heels (thanks in part to its launch of the Curry One basketball shoe).

Confident in Under Armour's creative direction, Lofton has demonstrated that the theme of self-empowerment has endless possibilities, perhaps even literally. The most recent effort, "Rule Yourself," features Under Armor stars like Curry, Spieth and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady working out on an infinite landscape featuring mirror images of the athletes as far as the eye can see. The visually arresting spots underscore the idea that great athletes must commit themselves to their goals again and again, every day, for as long as it takes.

"Adrienne chaperoned the integrity of the 'Rule Yourself' idea throughout the process," explains Julian Cheevers, group account director at Under Armour lead agency Droga5. "She pushed for the right creative risks at the right times, which was key to getting the work to where it ended up."

A word on where the brand itself has ended up: The first year Plank sold shorts out of his car trunk, Under Armour sales totaled $17,000. Last year, they spiked to $3 billion.

For Lofton, success for an athlete or for a brand comes from the same place. "It's about emotional determination," she says. "To be your best self, you have to be the sum of every single day's work put in."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.