IF YOU CAN'T BEAT IT BUY IT

Lifestyle brands are acquiring their way to becoming tech companies

It’s no fun playing catchup. In the fall Under Armour overtook Adidas for the first time in sportswear sales, but the athletic apparel and gear company is still far behind Nike. Under Armour is now trying to get up to speed in the digital space, accelerated by its recent acquisitions of the fitness and nutrition-tracking tools MyFitnessPal and Endomondo. In 2013, the sportswear maker also acquired MapMyFitness.

The 100 million new users—80 million from MyFitnessPal and 20 million from Endomondo—and the startups’ respective engineering teams make the case for Under Armour to be considered a tech brand. With these gains, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank says, the company can better engage with customers after they leave the store, and get insights into the health and fitness interests of its customers.

“I mean, in one fell swoop we created the world’s largest connected health and fitness community with 120 million unique members [including MapMyFitness]—and the largest by a factor of two and arguably three,” Plank said on the company’s earnings call. “At the end of the day, the math is pretty simple. The more active someone is, the more likely they are to buy athletic apparel and footwear.”

Now more than ever, lifestyle brands are paying attention to the digital space, but they’re also learning how hard it is to build new technologies from the ground up. The nutrition-logging aspect of MyFitnessPal was one of the major reasons Under Armour was interested in the startup. It’s “something that we thought would be much easier for us to buy than to try to build,” Plank told investors.

Indeed, the company’s two fitness-tracking apps built in-house have had limited success: Under Armour Record and Armour39 are ranked 78 and 689 in the fitness category, according to the app-tracking website App Annie. But perhaps more telling, Google Play notes that the Android version of Under Armour Record has only been installed 10,000 to 50,000 times. (Armour39 is only available on iOS.)

By contrast, Nike’s running app—one of about a dozen apps from the company—has been installed 10 million to 50 million times on Android devices. To be fair, Nike had a head start in the digital race, having released its Fuelband activity tracker back in 2012 (though that gadget’s development has since been discontinued), and the company is also working closely with Apple on wearables.

Under Armour’s reasoning is the same the Italian eyewear maker Luxottica used when it decided to team up with Intel to develop hi-tech smart glasses. It’s why fashion company Opening Ceremony also tapped Intel for its snakeskin-wrapped notification bracelet. And it’s why the luxury watchmaker Tag Heuer is striking up partnerships and looking to acquire tech firms to power its upcoming smartwatch. For these monied lifestyle brands, it’s simply easier to buy a solution than develop the technologies they want in-house.

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