REEBOK FLEXES PROGRAMMING MUSCLE

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Reebok International wants to transform itself from a mere TV advertiser into a programming player in the 500-channel future.

Athletic footwear and apparel companies like Reebok and Nike are known for trendsetting ads, but traditional media buying and planning tactics make them just as vulnerable to the clutter and channel surfing conundrums that thwart every marketer.

Seeking to get one step ahead, Reebok and its media buying agency, DeWitt Media, New York, have crafted a strategy that tries to either integrate the brand into the program itself or own the programming outright.

"It's not enough anymore to just buy ads," said David Ropes, Reebok director of marketing and media services. "An advertiser like us has to look at the purchase of media in terms of integration rather than just a unit buy."

It's a reality that all advertisers face today, but Reebok seems to be among the very few that are responding to it, and the strategy is earning raves and making waves in the industry.

"When it comes to understanding the importance and value of programming, Reebok is one of the most advanced companies out there. What they're doing is prototypical of what more and more companies will do in the future," said Jack Myers, president of Myers Communications, a Parsippany, N.J., marketing research company.

Reebok seems to be everywhere on TV this year and in very conspicuous ways, from NBC's Super Bowl telecast (an innovative during-the-game-produced spot from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago); to a broadcast sponsorship of the World Figure Skating Championships, also on NBC; to the "Reebok Halftime Report," a staple of Turner Network Television's coverage of NBA games.

Reebok's TV presence is likely to continue through the summer and fall. Mr. Ropes said Reebok is talking with Major League Baseball's integrated marketing unit about a broadcast and league sponsorship and is finalizing a deal with Fox concerning its pre-season NFL coverage.

The Fox sponsorship would serve as a platform to promote Reebok's latest line of Pre-Season cross-training shoes. Mr. Ropes said the marketer is also talking with other advertisers about a retail cross-promotion. A new Burnett spot featuring NFL star Emmitt Smith will hit in late summer but would be prominently showcased during Fox's August pre-season broadcasts.

This strategy isn't cheap; Reebok's media spending could top $100 million this year.

But with a viewer-ruled 500-channel universe looming, program integration will be among the few sure-fire means to reach consumers, and program ownership will be among the new ways advertisers can generate funds to pay for pricey marketing.

"More than a brand of shoe and apparel, we want Reebok to be a brand of sports and fitness," Mr. Ropes said. "So why shouldn't Reebok make Reebok-branded sports and fitness programming?"

In fact, it already does: Reebok produces an annual downhill bike racing program, called "The Reebok Eliminator," that airs on ESPN, as well as an array of workout shows, including "Step Reebok" for ESPN and "Slide Reebok" for the Cable Health Club, a cable channel in which Reebok owns an equity stake. An aerobics program will make its debut on that channel this summer.

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