PLUCK, PUCK HELP SHOES CLIMB BACK: NIKE, RIVALS FLEX NEW DESIGNS AND TECH IN REBOUND BID

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The athletic footwear industry is no longer on the run.

After a rough two years of recoiling from seismic shifts in fashion and rec-reation, sneaker companies will be back on the offensive in 1995 with new designs and technologies, revamped marketing strategies and aggressive expansion into new categories.

That charged-up mood will hit the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta this week during Super Show '95, the industry's annual show-and-tell session. Nike, No. 1 in this $6 billion market, will position hockey and soccer as the emerging sports of the next decade, while No. 2 Reebok International will stake its claim as the athletic performance brand (read Nike) of the '90s.

Adidas America, Converse and Fila USA will kick off a fierce yearlong fight to be No. 3 by carving out niches for themselves, distinct from Nike and Reebok. And once-mighty L.A. Gear will look to rebound by returning to its roots as a fashion and fitness brand for kids and women.

The decline in sneakers has been blamed on the rise in "brown shoes"-casual and outdoor footwear. The marketplace remained flat in '94, but it could have been worse if companies hadn't slashed prices and/or introduced midprice shoe lines.

But retailers report that since August, sales have picked up dramatically, and orders are up in nearly all product categories. Experts chalk it up to the cyclical nature of the fashion industry.

"I think this little soft period has been good for the industry," said Bob McGee, senior editor at Sportstyle, New York. "It was a wake-up call. It forced the big guns to be more creative, and it has forced smaller brands to forge their own identities, to finally wake up and say, `We're not Nike, let's stop trying.' "

Nike got more creative in '94 by spending $50 million in advertising, via Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., to introduce its Air Max Squared cushioning technology. And Nike, Reebok and Fila were credited with pumping new life into the basketball segment last fall with cool new designs.

Companies are also appropriating brown shoe styles. Last year, Nike and Reebok created a lucrative niche in the outdoor market with boots that incorporate athletic footwear technology. This year, Nike will introduce a Dr. Martens/Sketchers-inspired "industrial-strength" line of athletic footwear called NDESTRUKT, which Mr. McGee called "a marketing masterstroke."

Hockey-ice and office-will be a big story in '95. Nike will introduce two street hockey shoes this summer-the Air Street Defender high-top and Air Street Deke low-top. L.A. Gear will launch Street Hockey: the Gretzky Shoe, endorsed by hockey great Wayne Gretzky, this fall. Hopes are high at both companies that the shoes, which can be worn casually, will explode into a fashion craze.

Expect to see a shift in marketing strategy as well. Retailer tags and co-op ad support will become common. Fila will launch its Grant Hill-endorsed basketball shoe, The Hill, with TV spots breaking March 1 from FCB/Leber Katz Partners, New York, that will end with a Foot Locker tag. Foot Action will also support with a radio campaign.

Those efforts will follow a monthlong ad effort, breaking this week, that tries to link Fila with Mr. Hill, a rising NBA star. The campaign, titled "A Rookie's Journal," is a documentary about Mr. Hill's first year, told in 10 30-second spots. The commercials were produced by the makers of the acclaimed documentary "Hoop Dreams."

Companies will invest more in regional marketing. Reebok will channel $20 million of its $70 million media budget into regional marketing efforts, starting this spring with "The Big Hurt's Back Yard," via Leo Burnett USA, Chicago. The ad campaign includes a national overlay featuring Chicago White Sox star Frank "The Big Hurt" Thomas, with regional "backyard" efforts tied to retailers and built around John Elway (Denver), Shawn Kemp (Seattle) and Shaquille O'Neal (Orlando).

For those duking it out for No. 3, being like Nike is not the goal. If anything, the models are Converse and Fila, lifestyle brands that have thrived with a mix of fashion and fitness. Such companies are the model for L.A. Gear, crawling its way back to profitability.

"Nike is performance. We are not," said L.A. Gear President Robert Landes. "But we don't need to be Nike."

That means a return to its heritage-fashion and fitness distinctively L.A.-and its core business of women and kids. The company will launch a women's campaign in March, the first L.A. Gear work from Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif.

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