THE MARKETING 100;FILA HOWE BIRCH

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Going into 1995, Fila USA was the No. 5 athletic footwear and apparel brand. Its sales, just shy of $400 million, were fueled by the hip-hop urban set, keen on Fila's funky footwear designs and clever ads from FCB/Leber Katz Partners, New York.

"The marketing challenge for us," says Howe Burch, Fila's VP-advertising, "was, how do we become more mainstream? ... How do we appeal to both our core market as well as the suburban-mall set?"

The answer to all three: Grant Hill. The Duke University grad entered the National Basketball Association in the fall of 1994, touted as the next Michael Jordan. When he began playing like Mike-or, at least, reasonably close-he started marketing himself like Mike, too, snaring General Motors Corp., Gillette Co., Sprite and Fila.

In the month before the March 1 debut of Mr. Hill's signature basketball shoe, The Hill, Mr. Burch coordinated a hype-building ad campaign that eschewed the typical category approach of overhyping and overselling. The nine spots served as a documentary of Mr. Hill's rookie season, even if the fleeting product plugs spoiled the illusion.

"The spots showcased his intelligence, youth, dedication and infectiously affable personality and allowed viewers to really get to know him," says Mr. Burch. "It was an interesting way to build an association between the brand and the athlete."

When The Hill hit March 1, anecdotal reports from retailers claimed the shoes flew out of stores faster than any basketball shoe since the early years of Nike's Air Jordan line. Foot Locker is said to have sold out of its first 20,000 pairs within 10 days.

The $20 million campaign, which also included outdoor, print and PR, ran for six weeks beginning Feb. 1. By the end 1995, Fila was No. 3, just a squeak ahead of Adidas, with sales around $510 million.

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