Under Armour’s recent acquisition of online fitness community MapMyFitness is just the latest instance of offline brands trying to redefine themselves, at least in part, as tech platforms. And it should make its competitors sweat.

With the explosion of mobile device usage — fitness wearables, in this case — traditional brands have found that they don’t need to rely on publishers, banner ads or social media outlets to keep their customers engaged throughout the day. Instead of simply marketing to their target audiences, they can provide them with a useful service (and, they hope, sell them more stuff by doing so).

“Marketing has taken this turn not just toward value but toward something people can accomplish, something they can do,” Forrester analyst Melissa Parrish told Digiday. “By buying MapMyFitness, Under Armour is able to show you how much better you’re getting. They’re showing that they are in fact making you more fit, not just making you less sweaty.”

Founded in 1996 by former University of Maryland football player Kevin Plank, Under Armour made its name by creating form-fitting tops that were better than cotton at wicking away sweat and keeping players cool. With MapMyFitness, Under Armour hopes to extend its legacy of helping athletes into digital media.

MapMyFitness is a social media property with 9 million active users – every last one squarely in Under Armour’s target market. MapMyFitness’s 11 mobile apps help users track attributes like time spent, distance traveled and calories burned while doing everything from walking the dog to running a marathon. It is also compatible with fitness-tracking devices like Jawbone Up and Fitbit for users who want a more comprehensive look at their physical activity.

“Kevin Plank’s original mission was relentless innovation to make athletes better,” Chip Adams, Under Armour’s Chief Performance Officer, told Digiday. “Digital monitoring of fitness and performance is the wave of the future for all athletes. We have to be there.”

Much of the acquisition is about keeping Under Armour relevant as the sporting goods industry becomes more focused on wearables and data science. Despite its tech-savvy origins, Under Armour lags behind its much bigger legacy competitors Adidas and Nike in terms of embracing digital media.

Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United — some of the world’s most renowned soccer clubs — use Adidas’ miCoach Elite, a system that uses wearable sensors to track players’ speed, acceleration, heart rate and distance run. Nike has made a more consumer-friendly push into digital with its popular wrist-worn Fuelband device.

Still, both Under Armour’s Adams and MapMyFitness CEO Robin Thurston said they’re committed to keeping MapMyFitness’ platform open to all device partners – even their competitors.

“In technology, it’s not uncommon to be open to devices other than your own and sometimes owned by your competition,” said Adams. Under Armour might not even prevent other athletic brands from advertising on MapMyFitness’ site. As of this writing, Jawbone and running shoe brand Brooks were serving display ads on MapMyFitness.

In this way, Under Armour’s strategy for MapMyFitness is similar to how Google views its Android mobile operating system: By making a platform that’s as pervasive and alluring as possible, the hope is people will use it more often and boost brand loyalty.

“I think that connection to the consumer is changing,” Thurston said. “By touching them all the time, you can have relationship that is deeper than just apparel. If you look at how many times in a given week that we touch someone, there’s a real appeal from a brand perspective.”

Image via Flickr

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