#522: Under Armour Shares UA Rewards

This episode is available in audio format as “Let’s Talk Loyalty” and in video format on www.Loyalty.TV.

Today’s conversation features Under Armour, a leading inventor, marketer, and distributor of branded athletic performance clothing, footwear, and accessories.

Under Armour was originally launched in 1996 but only recently launched its loyalty proposition for customers.

Joining us today to share the story of this program is Nandika Suri, VP, Global Loyalty, CRM and Personalization at Under Armour.

Nandika shares how her insights from more than sixteen years in the airline loyalty sector were invaluable in guiding Under Armour’s transformation from its initial vision to become the “UA Rewards” program, which has already proven hugely succesful and enrolled nearly 3 million members in its first six months alone.

Show notes:

1) Under Armour

2) “UA Rewards

3) Nandika Suri

4) Watch the full interview at www.Loyalty.TV

Audio Transcript

Paula: Welcome to Let’s Talk Loyalty, an industry podcast for loyalty marketing professionals. I’m Paula Thomas, the Founder and CEO of Let’s Talk Loyalty and also Loyalty TV. If you work in loyalty marketing, you can watch our video interviews every Thursday on www.loyalty.tv. And of course, you can listen to our podcasts every Tuesday, every Wednesday, and every Thursday to learn the latest ideas from loyalty experts around the world.

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Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk Loyalty and Loyalty TV. I’m excited to share today’s episode featuring Under Armour, a leading inventor, marketer and distributor of branded athletic performance clothing, footwear and accessories. Under Armour was launched in 1996 and they continue to focus on performance driven innovations that help solve problems that athletes face in their journeys to compete. More recently, and of more interest to you guys, is the decision to create and craft a loyalty proposition from scratch. 

Joining us today to share the story of this program is Nandika Suri, VP of Global Loyalty, CRM and Personalization at Under Armour. Nandika shares how her insights from more than 16 years in the airline loyalty sector were invaluable in guiding Under Armour’s transformation.

As you’ll hear, the UA Rewards Program has already proven hugely successful and enrolled nearly 3 million members in its first six months alone. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Nandika Suri all about UA Rewards. 

Nandika Suri, welcome to Let’s Talk Loyalty and Loyalty TV. 

Nandika: Thanks for having me here Paula.

Paula: Great. 

Nandika: Really excited to be here today. I’m an avid fan of, you know, both the podcast as well as Loyalty TV. So super excited to be here today. 

Paula: You know, that really means a lot for you to say that actually Nandika, somebody with your expertise and experience that we’re going to talk about today. So absolutely first and foremost, thank you from our side as a team.

I think, you know, we just released our 500th episode, actually, of Let’s Talk Loyalty. So we’ve been doing this a long time, but still we haven’t talked about Under Armour. We haven’t met you till today, so it proves there’s a lot of work still to be done.

So listen, let’s get straight into it, Nandika. As you know, we always start this show really trying to get a sense from loyalty professionals as to what they admire in the industry. And here we are early 2024. Would you mind telling our viewers and listeners what is your current favorite loyalty program, please? 

Nandika: Yeah, sure. I mean, outside of the two programs that I work on, of course, Sephora is one of my favorites. I think Sephora does a really good job of engaging customers in a way that’s meaningful to the consumers.

You know, they have ways of engaging the program yeah, you know, more at the transactional level, but then they do a really good job of engaging at an emotional level as well. Their program has features like, you know, beauty insider tips that really helps the customer in their own personal journey, which I think you know, sets them apart a little bit. I think they’ve done a good job of creating this sense of community amongst its member base. And I think very recently they added a feature of gamification. That’s another very exciting way to keep the members engaged on an ongoing basis. 

Paula: Amazing. You know, I really, really love that. And you’re clearly preaching to the converted when you talk about gamification content. And I suppose increasingly we’re thinking about Let’s Talk Loyalty as a community as well. So people who do, you know, share a love of some passion point, which Sephora clearly does super well. And a quick shout out if anybody is listening from Sephora, we’d love to have you on the show. So please do get in touch. So, so it’s a brilliant example, Nandika. Thank you for kicking us off with that. 

The next most important question I think for the audience who may not know you is to get a sense of your incredible professional loyalty background. So take us through the work that you’ve been doing over the last I think almost 20 years in the industry.

Nandika: Yep. That’s right. I started my marketing career I would say a little over two decades ago back in India. After completing my, you know, business education, I work for a package consumer goods company in the area of brand management. And while I was there, I got a chance to really work on some incredible stuff, you know, launching, repositioning, relaunching products and skincare, haircare, and food category.

You know, I did that for about five years and absolutely loved the consumer, the marketing, the loyalty space but really wanted to now pivot to the data side of marketing. You know, CPGs back in the time were more mass marketing. And so that’s what kind of brought me to the US. I, you know, did some further education in a data driven integrated marketing.

And then after that, I worked for United Airlines for 16 years. A large part of my career at United was in their loyalty program. I helped build up the overall rewards portfolio, as well as ran the Mileage program. When United merged with Continental Airlines you know, I was part of the team that was you know, tasked to lead the definition of the Go Forward loyalty program, as well as then after that, I did a radical transformation of that program over the next several years.

For the last I would say four years or so, I’ve been in the retail industry. I lead loyalty personalization and CRM at Under Armour. And during my time here, you know, I’ve really got a chance to lead and help launch a UA Rewards, Under Armour’s first loyalty, first ever loyalty program. And you know, really proud of kind of, you know, what we’ve been able to you know, achieve in the last several years.

Paula: You know, there’s something particularly compelling about the two sectors, I suppose, that you’ve spent all that time in. In fact, all three. I think CPG is beginning to have a surgence of interest and loyalty. I think you said that when we met the last time. Of course, we all know the challenges for mass marketers with having products on the shelf that nobody can understand the profile of the customer. So, massive opportunities in that space and definitely one again, we’re keen to explore a lot more on the show.

And airlines, of course, are close to my heart you know, United is an incredible airline. I think you shared that there was over a hundred people in that loyalty team. So quite impressive what you guys were doing there and clearly kept you engaged and interested as a data led marketer for 16 years. So what finally convinced you to move to retail into the Under Armour opportunity? 

Nandika: Yeah, I think I’m in. It goes without saying Under Armour is such a phenomenal brand. So, you know, when I was approached, definitely had to take the call. But I think what really you know, got me excited about is the fact that you know, this was going to be part of our transformation journey for a new brand and my entire career that’s been about launch, reposition, transformation, change.

So I think that’s what really got me, you know, excited about this specific opportunity. And you know, clearly I’ve been, you know, super happy with you know, with the, you know, with where we are at today. 

Paula: Amazing. So was it a blank sheet of paper, Nandika, when you joined the company? It sounds like clearly looking for your skillset, the decision had been made to launch a program, which in itself is a huge, I think, indication, I suppose, of how the brand wants to demonstrate its loyalty to its customers. But did you come in literally with them with the opportunity and the challenge, I suppose, to create everything from scratch?

Nandika: Yeah, I think as an organization, I think we knew that we, you know, we growth is our next path. And so we have to the decision had been made to, you know, work on building that consumer engagement part of the business. You know, so what I did was jump on the bandwagon and really help build that whole, you know, capability up and work closely, you know, coming up to speed with what was already done then building upon it. 

Paula: Okay. So tell us what did you launch and specifically actually as well, Nandika, because we do have, of course, a global audience. I’m keen to understand what markets you’re already live with the loyalty program in, because typically there would be a phased approach again, you know, in different markets around the world. So tell us what you’ve launched and where. 

Nandika: Yeah. So we just completed the launch of our loyalty program in the US. We launched a tour of last year. And you know, the members can get to engage in the program with our brand in a number of different ways. Once you sign up on any of our direct channels, members can then you know, get some of the benefits of traditional programs so they can earn their points when they do transactions.

I think something that we really created, which is very unique, is that ability to engage with our customers more at an emotional level. So we’ve added elements that actually help build that deeper connection with the brand. So, our vision as a brand, our mission is to make you better. And so our loyalty program is designed around the same thing saying, you know, we wanted to make sure we’re true to our brands overall mission.

So once you know, a member joins, they can definitely on the points, like I said, through transactions. But then we provide challenges from time to time. And these challenges really inspire, you know, our consumers to be better. So, for example, run certain number of miles and get certain points and all these points that members then get can be used towards different types of transactions. 

And then outside of that you know, the different types of rewards that we offer, there’s a breadth so that the customers can choose what’s more relevant for them. They can reading for the gear directly. They could reading for certificates that, you know, allow them to do gear you know, to apply that certificate towards the gear that they’re in their car they have in their car. But I think what members can also do in the program is they can actually take these points and then get really nice experiences with the brand with our athletes. So I think that’s another way in which they can, you know, engage based on kind of what’s really meaningful for them. 

We know that, you know, engaging in the community is important team in the area of loyalty today. And our members can actually take their points and donate them towards charitable charities that actually help provide kids access to sport. We also encourage our consumers to give points in the form of with ratings and reviews that can actually help other consumers that are in the purchase journey. And then I think we have different other features like our members week you know, just that provides something special and exclusive, exciting to our members from time to time. Members also get early access to our product and gear. And sometimes, you know, some limited edition product as well. So I think there’s many different ways that we, you know, love to keep our members engaged, that we make the program meaningful, relevant for them. 

And I think lastly we have a very you know, a great feature in our program where we’ve actually partnered with several experts in different fields, and they provide tips and guidance that actually help you know, you get better. And these could be in the area of sleep nutrition, mindfulness you know, breathing, things that really help you, you know, become better in your own personal journey. 

Paula: Wonderful. 

Nandika: And in terms of our I would say in terms of kind of where we are you know, we also have UA Rewards in a couple other countries in the world, but we started in the US with a pilot program. We piloted for a while and then we actually rolled out based on kind of, you know, our initial success. 

Paula: Okay. Yes. And I think as you said to me last time, Nandika, that it was actually more successful, more quickly than you even expected. So you were able to fast track the rollout given that it was working super well. So sounds like you must be just so proud of exactly what’s been created and how your audience and your members are responding to all of that. 

Nandika: Yeah, really incredibly proud of, you know, the team and, you know, all of us here that made it happen. 

Paula: Yes. So what were the challenges, Nandika? It’s never an easy ride. It sounds simple when it’s already gone to market, you know, it’s a very complete proposition that you’ve just described, obviously covering both the transactional side, as you said, and then even things like meeting celebrity athletes, like that’s the kind of thing that any athlete I know gets super, super pumped about. So what were the biggest and hardest parts in terms of developing things, something so comprehensive throughout the launch? 

Nandika: Yeah, I think when you’re thinking about a program, you know, that for a large brand, I think there’s to be successful in the present day context it’s really important that you’re not just building something that is in a silo, but really fully integrated with the brand’s entire gamut.

So I don’t know if I would call it a challenge in particular, but something that we had as a key consideration is how is loyalty deeply connected with all the facets of our ecosystem, our entire gamut. It’s not just, you know, our retail, our apps. You know, it’s our customer service. It’s our events. How do we make sure that’s plugged in? And we were very intentional about it. You know, very deliberate about making that you know, making sure that we had that cross functional integration. So I think that’s definitely you know, like I said, not necessarily a challenge, but like a key consideration.

Paula: Yeah.

Nandika: I think another important one is really you know, making sure that we have very defined KPIs and that we all had a common understanding and alignment on what those KPIs were, and that we were all jointly accountable for them. So I think that’s another thing that’s really important because, like I said, you don’t want this to be one individual, one team. It really has to be more of an enterprise, enterprise mindset to make it truly successful. You know, as a program. 

And then I think lastly and I’ve seen this, you know, in my entire career we brands typically do a really great job of connecting customer information. But often end up having bottlenecks or not really clear processes on how that data becomes available to the channels to truly activate in a way that’s, you know, hyper personalized. So I think that’s something that we’ve been very intentional about. You know, we will collect this data. How do we make sure that it’s, you know, available?

Paula: It’s a really important point, Nandika. I think capturing data is something that is sometimes just taken as an important priority, of course, to inform the business, but without any clear path in terms of the usage of that data. And I was smiling to myself recently. I just had a birthday, which was super exciting on a personal level, of course, and you know, everything was brilliant. But when I looked at the loyalty programs that I’m a member of, it didn’t seem that they were using that data at all. You know, there was one program that a retail luxury retailer literally set me to loyalty points. And I was very confused as to what the purpose of awarding somebody points would be at such a low level.

And now granted, I haven’t shopped with them. So, you know, maybe they were just trying to catch my attention, but it sounds like you do have a clear plan across all of the channels, as you said, in terms of if you’re going to capture it, you’ve got to use it. 

Nandika: Yeah. 

Paula: Fantastic. Cool. So lots going on. How’s it going? Would you say, you know, versus where the expectations were, where are you at? You’re obviously proud of it, but you know, what is next, I guess, for the Under Armour Rewards program? 

Nandika: Yeah, I think our given that we build, you know, the foundation, our program is to really. continue to build upon the program and continue to build that emotional connection with the consumers in a way that’s you know, super meaningful for them. So we’ll continue to, you know, continue to be, you know, relevant to our consumers and we’ll gauge their feedback and then evolve the program. 

You know, really, I think the big thing I would say is really how do we build that experiential loyalty? How do we build that emotional connection that really, you know, keeps the consumer excited about, you know, Under Armour and, you know, help build that brand love for us.

Paula: Yeah. And you mentioned KPIs as well, Nandika, and actually would be remiss of me if I didn’t actually ask you, you know, what do you focus on in terms of your KPIs? What are the key things that, because clearly there’s a hundred different things you can measure. So what takes what keeps you awake at night?

Nandika: Yep, no, you’re absolutely right. I think there’s 100 different things that we can measure, and we measure a bunch of different things. But I think I’ll highlight a few KPIs that are very important for us right now with, you know, with where we are at in our journey. You know, given that we’ve just launched a loyalty program, building that member base for us is really key.

And, you know, specifically also, if you start to look at things like third party cookie deprecation, companies really have to focus on building up that first party data strategy. So I think for that reason, one of the key KPIs for us is enrollment. And so that’s something that we keep a very keen eye on, like building that base.

But you know, as I said earlier, one of the biggest things for the loyalty program is to keep the member excited about the brand and get them coming back to the brand again and again. So another KPI that we look at or KPIs, maybe I would say two of them that we look at very closely are actives as well as our attention rates.

So what that really helps us, you know, ensure is for the funnel where consumers are coming in, you know, how are we doing in terms of retaining and activating that base. 

Paula: Okay. 

Nandika: So I think the key ones and I think as time I would say as time matures and as we get more data and history on our members, I think we will be building up other metrics like the lifetime value we have, you know, the you know, started on that path, but we are somewhat early in our journey you know, because of our programming.

Paula: Amazing. And tell me then just the internal journey, Nandika, because again, coming from United, you know, within the airline industry, I think every single person understands the role of the loyalty program in terms of, you know, keeping customers happy and, you know, the competitive advantage that’s available.

I really, I suppose, admire brands like Under Armour, that Take time, first of all, to, you know, decide to launch a program, then put incredible people behind actually developing the proposition. But I suppose you mentioned like transformation. It sounds like that is something that you probably would have had to spend a lot of time on just to bring the business on that journey with you.

Nandika: Yeah, no, absolutely. Yeah. It’s actually, you know, a great question. I think whenever you’re doing something new you’ve got to be a little bit intentional about how you’re going to. You know, engage with everybody on bring them along. And this I’ve actually learned, you know, and throughout my career, not just an Under Armor.

And so I think we were very deliberate and intentional about making sure that this truly is a fully integrated cross functional effort. And that’s the way we approached it, you know, and so setting it up in that way really allowed us to have conversations with pretty much every facet of the business, engage all our stakeholders. You know, and make them really part of this journey. And that way, I think we were all building it together. So I think that’s been something that has helped us to you know, get to where we are at and, you know, the team’s incredibly proud of. 

Paula: Yeah. And I guess given how competitive the loyalty market is in the US as well, Nandika, I’m guessing that your retail staff were probably thrilled to bits that they finally had a program to talk to members about.

Nandika: Yes, no, absolutely. All our teammates are super excited. To be able to, you know, engage with, you know, our consumers in a different and more meaningful way. 

Paula: Yes. Yeah. How was the training program? I always feel that’s the one that, you know, is a lot of work. And of course that job is never done, but again, given that it’s a particularly a new program launch, I’m guessing you have an ongoing training program. So, so how does that work given the scale of the brand? 

Nandika: No, I think great point is it is actually an ongoing journey and kind of, you know, when it gets to training, we started this ongoing journey you know, pre pilot because we said let’s pilot and select districts. And I think that’s where we first establish all our training. We learned from that. And so as we rolled out and launched. You know, we were smarter and then we evolved that training and you know, I’m a huge fan of, you know, continuous improvement. 

Paula: Yeah.

Nandika: So I think every day we learn things and I think based on those things we have to finesse, adjust and you know, and if needed you know, re, re, re skill or re train.

Paula: Okay. Yeah. Yeah. No, the job is never done. I think early in my loyalty career, I remember, you know, launching a program or relaunching a program and, you know, expecting to heave a sigh of relief and just go back to normality. And of course, that’s when the hard work actually starts is when the program is lodged.

So, clearly the voice of experience coming through there in terms of exactly what is required to make it successful, because it’s not a one and done. I guess, particularly in a public company like you guys, it’s there’s always that extra visibility and transparency. That’s important that investors are looking to see how programs are performing as well.

And we were lucky enough to have McDonald’s on the show here as well recently. And like that, they were one of the later quick service restaurants to launch a loyalty program. But by virtue of that, I think they learned a huge amount, of course, in terms of what is resonating, particularly in this digital age. And it does give you an opportunity to develop something that is much more personalized, as you said, across all channels. 

And it does sound like you’ve managed to get that omni channel experience totally in place and working very effectively. Would you say that the job there is done? Done good enough for your satisfaction? I know it’s never finished, but do you feel like you got a good result in terms of having the omnichannel personalization? 

Nandika: Yeah, I think quite frankly, one of our you know, what I’ve seen in other places that I’ve worked and in general in the industry is, to be really successful in the loyalty program, really to be able to make that difference, I would say, at the omni channel level, you need to maybe spend a deliberate effort in creating that foundation. Where you can identify customers across different channels, and then you can collect their data, build that 360 profile of the customer and personalize. 

And so, we were very deliberate you know, very early on building that foundation, even before we put our program out there. You know, call it in the US. And so we’ve invested in that building that 360 profile of the customer that can then be averaged across all these different channels. I mean, you and I both know, I think in today’s world, customers going between channels between platforms between brands within a matter of seconds, and they’re expecting that brands know them real time, and they’re, you know, relevant in a real time basis.

So we’ve really helped. We really started by building the foundation there and making sure that we’re able to do that. I actually never feel like our job is ever fully done. So I think there’s always more that you could be doing within any given channel. You know, what kind of experiences are more relevant and continuing to expand them. But, definitely I feel like we’ve started on a really solid foundation. 

Paula: Amazing. Yeah. And certainly from previous guests as well, Nandika, there is so much learning that comes through in terms of, you know, once you have the technology stack that you need and we won’t have time to get into it today, but we have run a couple of virtual events where we literally just kind of behind the scenes compare notes in terms of what tech really has made a difference.

Because I think the reality of CRM and all of the various pieces that are required to deliver the experience that you’re determined to do with this program is something that really, I think we can benefit from, you know, in terms of advising each other. So really good to hear that you feel like you’ve got a lot of the basics in place. You’ve got the foundation there. 

And of course we would love to stay connected with you. I think that’s the most important thing because it’s still early in your journey and with big programs like yours, we love to kind of come back year after year and we’re and hear what the latest updates and developments are.

So with that said I will say from our side, we definitely want to stay connected with you and Nandika. We will be watching Under Armour and all of the loyalty initiatives that you’re rolling out around the world. Have you any final kind of closing words of wisdom for our audience before we wrap up?

Nandika: No, first of all, thanks so much for having me. But you know what I’d say out there for, you know, all the loyalty, you know, marketing professionals is loyalty has become so dynamic and multi factor. So think about it, not in the context of the program, but the overall customer journey. Because that’s kind of how you know, you can be more meaningful to the customer.

Paula: Absolutely. 

Nandika: I think that’s what I have. 

Paula: Okay. Wonderful. So listen, Nandika Suri, Vice President of Global CRM, Loyalty and Personalization with Under Armour. Thank you so much from Let’s Talk Loyalty and Loyalty TV.

Nandika: Thank you.

Paula: This show is sponsored by Wise Marketer Group, publisher of The Wise Marketer, the premier digital customer loyalty marketing resource for industry relevant news, insights and research. Wise Marketer Group also offers loyalty education and training globally through its Loyalty Academy, which has certified nearly 900 marketers and executives in 49 countries as certified loyalty marketing professionals.

For global coverage of customer engagement and loyalty, check out thewisemarketer.com and become a wiser marketer or subscriber. Learn more about global loyalty education for individuals or corporate training programs at loyaltyacademy.org. 

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