Russell Athletic

Touting a successful heritage dating all the way back to 1902, Russell Athletic's classic and well-established brand is entrenched globally.
But as the president of Russell Athletic, Doug Kelly, admits, solidifying that brand recognition - no matter how strong it may already be - is an undertaking that never ends.
The reality is particularly pronounced in the cutthroat sports apparel realm where the fight for dominance can be as competitive as it is in the on-field contests that the market serves.
As it draws up a fresh new game plan under new ownership, Russell Athletic is sharpening its brand image. The recent push is demonstrated through new marketing initiatives, the launch of high-tech apparel products and aggressively pursued licensing agreements with sports leagues and teams.
"What we've wanted to do is beef up the marketing emphasis and let the consumer know a little more that we are around," says Kelly.
As demand increases for sports apparel with technical advantages, Russell Athletic is marketing "best of both worlds" offerings that integrate performance qualities with the comfort attributes that are the foundation of the brand.
Its recently launched "Luxe Layer" women's apparel line, for instance, promotes peached jersey fabric for a soft feel, while also incorporating the company's patented "Dri-Power" moisture-wicking technology.
Youth-driven movement Kelly assumed the helm of Russell Athletic last year, as Berkshire Hathaway's Fruit of the Loom purchased parent Russell Corp., transitioning it from a publicly held company (with reported fiscal year revenues of $1.4 billion in 2005) to part of Warren Buffett's private financial empire.
Russell Athletic serves as the main operating division and flagship brand of Russell Corp. - which also owns sports brands Spalding and Huffy - dually headquartered in Alexander City, AL, and Atlanta. Since the acquisition, Berkshire Hathaway, known for its marketing savvy (think Geico gekko) has sought to quickly exert its successful advertising stamp on Russell Athletic.
In seeking brand improvement, the company is focusing in particular on the youth market. Kelly says that Russell has "very strong brand awareness in the 35-year-old and above bracket," but needed to focus more attention on the 12-to-34 age range.
Despite statistics indicating that roughly one out of every three high school athletes uses its product in a team situation, the company realized it wasn't fully capitalizing on its relationship with this group - perhaps not engaging the young athlete after he or she left the field of play, he says.
Under Kelly (an executive who previously oversaw sports brands including Converse, Mizuno and Easton), Russell Athletic has moved quickly and creatively to fill that gap, including through the leveraging of its high-profile affiliation with one increasingly popular and youthful sports entity: the Arena Football League (AFL).
Russell Athletic was named the official uniform supplier for the AFL under a three-year contract beginning this year. The agreement allows Russell to outfit all the league's teams with its recently unveiled Xtreme Compression (XC) jersey.
According to Kelly, the garment, which was tested at North Carolina State University, is the most technically advanced football jersey on the market. It is the lone garb of its kind that offers 100 percent compression, he says. The XC jersey keeps the muscles bound tightly throughout the game to reduce fatigue, and the compression materials make the jersey difficult to grab (an especially desired feature in the scoring-happy AFL).
Other attributes built into XC include anti-microbial technology, ventilator technology to accelerate body cooling and Dri- Power. "It manages the thermoregulation of your body heat 17 percent faster than any other garment that we've seen," Kelly says. XC is available in products ranging from premium levels to those at lower price points.
Under its comprehensive involvement with Arena Football, Russell Athletic is also conducting multiple promotions at the local level and sponsoring the AFL for the next five years on ESPN, which will provide it with unique and sweeping brand placement in a league with ever growing television ratings.
"I saw a good value proposition there," says Kelly. "The league is very family oriented. -- It's still a very reasonably priced ticket where you can take the whole family and the players are required to sign autographs after each game for 20 minutes. It's just a very nice experience."
The investment has proven to be a strategic and profitable fit, Kelly says. Citing just one example, he says that merchandise sales jumped 10 percent in Mervyns' Los Angeles stores after Russell Athletic sponsored a recent halftime show for the local Avengers team.
Under Kelly, Russell Athletic also has renewed affiliations within the National Football League. It announced a multi-year "branding initiative" with the St. Louis Rams that makes Russell Athletic one of the team's major sponsors and affixes the Russell Athletic name to the team's training facility. It has also struck team marketing deals with the Washington Redskins, Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers.
Russell Athletic's commitment to connect with the youth market is also evident through its contributions to several charities, many not publicized. For example, the company was part of an initiative to rebuild youth football in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
The comapny, which outfits players in the Little League World Series (LLWS), also recently lent needed financial assistance to a local Georgia team throughout its run to the LLWS championship.
Capitalizing collegiately
Kelly also sees brand potential for Russell Athletic through its vast and impressive collegiate network, to which he partly attributes the company's double-digit growth in licensing revenues over the past four years.
"We've got over 500 Division I teams using and wearing our product," he says, adding that he predicts strong growth in college licensing, much of it to come as a result of multi-media offerings that allow fans to follow their college teams yearround - fans that are graduates, with increasing buying power.
Russell Athletic is supplying several college football teams with the new XC jerseys; also among its latest product developments are its "Racerback" hightech jerseys designed specifically for women's collegiate basketball and volleyball.
The merger only strengthens its collegiate foothold, according to Kelly, providing it with an additional Fruit of the Loom decorating facility in Kentucky to go with similar factories in Alabama and California. The facilities work in tandem with its global production facilities to ensure fast response to the college market.
Additionally, Berkshire Hathaway has invested in state-of-the art digitizing equipment for Russell that the company did not previously own.
Although the company is still pursuing consistent levels of growth, its return to private status and not being "tied to" a periodic quarterly investor report is another positive side effect of the merger, says Kelly.
As he continues to aggressively seek new marketing opportunities for Russell Athletic, Kelly speaks enthusiastically about his role and his company's future: "I love it, for example, when the Little League World Series is going on and our logo is visible on all those teams from nations around the world," he says. "To me that's more fun than if I were selling computer chips."
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