AVIA SCRAMBLES TO OUTDO RIVALS' RACES

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Avia Group International is using guerrilla marketing tactics to get a jump on athletic shoe rivals.

To break away from the pack of shoe marketers sponsoring running races this fall, the Beaverton, Ore.-based unit of Reebok International has created the Avia Scramble, an unusual event that's as hard to enter as it is to win.

Combining the elements of a footrace with a steeplechase course, the Scramble was initiated three years ago in Los Gatos, Calif., to help introduce a new off-road shoe. Contestants are turned loose on a course dotted with obstacles and challenging terrain to give their shoes as well as their bodies a strenuous workout.

Since its inception, the Scramble has generated so much positive publicity for Avia that the company has expanded the events to other regions and next month will sponsor its first-ever Urban Scramble in New York, said Tim Haney, Avia senior sports promotions manager.

The Avia Urban Scramble will be held Sept. 17 in Manhattan; off-road Scrambles are slated for Oct. 22 at Vermont's Stratton Ski Resort and Nov. 20 in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Avia recently hired International Management Group, New York, to coordinate and help market its future events, but promotion for this year's Scrambles is being handled primarily in-house.

Targeting highly active, outdoors-oriented people between 25 and 35 years old, the Scrambles were designed to promote Avia's brand and the versatility of its shoes, but the events "become product-related when we tie in retailers," Mr. Haney said.

In Manhattan, the Urban Scramble will target the same hardy breed of active adventurers, but the challenges will demand skills learned on the streets instead of the rocks, mud and hillsides encountered in the great outdoors, Mr. Haney said.

"This is the Scrambler's creed: We are the few, the proud, the insane," says one of the promotional posters created in-house for the event. "What is an Avia Scramble? It's like running, only there's no track, no road and no trails."

Courses are kept secret until the day of the event.

"We don't tell [entrants] where it is. We get them on a bus and take them to the race. It's an extremely tough event for them. When they cross the finish line, they say never again," Mr. Haney said, adding that Avia plans to do eight Scrambles in various cities next year.

"The new twist is that three of the next eight will be Urban Scrambles," he said.

The Scrambles aren't open to the public, and the entry forms are hotly pursued by amateur athletes, who are asked to explain why they're qualified to compete. Only 100 participants are selected for each event; last year, about 200 people were turned away from the Scramble in Boulder, Colo.

Rather than discouraging consumers, however, Avia said, the Scrambles' exclusivity and uniqueness have created more interest. Last year, ESPN covered the events, and additional publicity is expected this year.

Avia planners haven't yet finalized the challenges New York's Urban Scramble will include, but the goal is to create an equally unusual race course to generate spectator interest and publicity.

"We may have them ride taxis and climb chain link fences," said Carey Kerns, Avia's publicity director.

"There are people who do something like scramble every day," she said. "This is a way to marry the footwear with the activity" and separate Avia from other makers of rugged outdoor shoes.

Avia's recently hired ad agency, Carmichael Lynch, Minneapolis, will eventually produce materials for the Scrambles, but this year's promotional materials were developed in-house.

Other events Avia is sponsoring this year include the Sept. 24 San Francisco Hill Stride and "quite a few events in the aerobics arena," including regional conferences, events and seminars, Ms. Kerns said. It's also sponsoring the Lady Avia Classic 5-kilometer run, in both Baltimore and Seattle.

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