The marketer's claims that the shoes could make muscles more fit ran afoul of the Federal Trade Commission last year, and the result was a $25 million settlement and plenty of negative press. But, in an effort to maintain a thriving toning-shoe business, the brand says it has enhanced its testing protocol and tweaked its marketing message.
"We are 100% convinced, and have done more consumer insights to identify, that there is still a market for toning," said Martina Jahrbacher, head of Reebok Women's Sport division. "It will not be as hyped as it was in the beginning. That's our job in the industry, to bring it to a reasonable level."
The company stood by the footwear all along and said it agreed to a settlement only to avoid a protracted legal battle. Still, Ms. Jahrbacher acknowledged, consumers "have been a little confused or have lost faith."
Toning shoes had been heralded as a kind of miracle remedy for jiggly thighs and flabby bums—which is most likely what attracted the FTC's attention. Huge marketing budgets from Reebok and Skechers, which ran Super Bowl spots in 2010 and 2011, helped toning explode into a billion-dollar category seemingly overnight.
Rather than abandon the lucrative category, Reebok went back to the drawing board and conceived a more rigorous testing protocol. The company's independent study was conducted over 12 weeks, with women ages 22 to 39 wearing EasyTone shoes during supervised aerobic walking three times a week. The result was an average 2.5% reduction in body fat, but no weight loss. (Reebok tested EasyTone against a control shoe with a flat bottom.)
New ads from McGarryBowen carry the tagline: "A beautiful way to reduce body fat." Fine print details Reebok's study. The campaign, now running in Europe and Asia, will be rolled out globally. Plans for the U.S. market are not finalized.
"It was definitely an interesting experience for us," Ms. Jahrbacher said of the FTC investigation and settlement. "It has shown us how we can be even better in talking about new testing protocols that we've done. [The FTC] would never approve a testing protocol ... but our experts have learned all the questions and pushbacks and deep dives [the agency might have]. We're in a very confident spot."
While sales in the category have slowed dramatically, consumers still appear to be smitten. Matt Powell, an analyst with SportsOneSource, said dollar sales for toning shoes were down 50% last year, to $550 million, but unit sales were down only 20%.
"My read is the consumer still really likes these shoes," Mr. Powell said. "There is room for toning footwear in the marketplace, and Reebok is absolutely correct in getting after it."
Reebok said it fielded fewer complaints about the products than it expected after the settlement, which allowed customers to claim refunds. The claims period closed April 10.
The company had originally said that users would see a 28% increase in the strength and tone of the butt, and an 11% increase in that of the hamstrings and calf muscles.
The settlement said Reebok could make no claims about its toning products unless they were "non-misleading, and backed by scientific evidence," said Dana Barragate, a lawyer with the FTC.
"We hope that companies learn from situations like this," Ms. Barragate said, adding that the agency would not comment on Reebok's new effort. "We want to encourage businesses to undertake research, which need not be overly costly, to establish the health and fitness benefits of their products and then advertise those benefits to consumers."
Clark Rector, exec VP-government affairs for the American Advertising Federation, said it's not unheard of for companies to tangle with the FTC and then make a comeback. "In some ways, it ends up enhancing consumer trust," he said. "If consumers are aware of what has happened, they may look at the product and say, "This company if it's smart, is doing things the right way now to fix the problem.'"