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These are not banner days for Nike, and you'd think that would make Peter Arnell happy. Arnell, head of the Arnell Group ad agency in New York, is responsible for marketing Fila, an athletic shoe brand that has been struggling to get out from under the oppressive air-cushioned heel of Nike, dominator of the category for at least a decade. The Nike juggernaut has seen some trying times of late. The company's sales have flattened and its stock price has been yo-yoing. Nike's advertising has been undergoing a significant overhaul, with Goodby Silverstein & Partners having been brought in late last year in an apparent warning sign to Nike's agency of record, Wieden & Kennedy. Reason for competitors to feel hopeful? Arnell seems to be feeling more frustrated than buoyant.

"This is probably the lowest moment in the advertising for this category," he sighs. "It's too damn crowded." The marketing man is referring to the recent influx of designer label sneakers from the likes of DKNY. That fancy footwear now competes with the entrenched athletic shoe brands. The sneaker establishment itself is also mucking things up with a dizzying assortment of models differentiated by high-tech features no one understands. Then there are the athletes who drive the advertising: It's questionable whether their propensity to throttle coaches and toss fans through plate-glass windows makes them ideal endorsers. "The whole approach to marketing athletic shoes by depending entirely on athletes has to be re-evaluated," Arnell gripes. (Nevertheless, his client Fila relies heavily on Grant Hill). He observes that sneaker shoppers are more fickle than ever, seeming to favor performance one moment and fashion the next, unsure about whether to worship Jordan or Hilfiger.

But nothing depresses Arnell like the state of sneaker advertising. "It's all so boring," he says, noting that everybody seems to be creating the same kind of ads -- overproduced and overdramatic, often revolving around Show-me-the-money athletes, almost invariably echoing the basic tone set by Nike and Wieden & Kennedy about 10 years ago. "People are sick of that kind of advertising," he claims.

But what's the alternative? Nike's new "I Can" campaign, the surprisingly touchy-feely successor to the world-famous "Just Do It," "seems like focus groups talking," says Ewen Cameron, a partner and head of planning at Berlin Cameron & Partners, which handles part of the Reebok account. "Rather than being a strong statement of its own, it seems to be a reaction to what people were criticizing Nike for -- that they'd grown tired of prescriptive statements and of seeing the swoosh."

It's not a problem that only Nike faces. In the past year, smaller brands -- both in athletic shoes and in outdoor "brown" shoes such as Wolverine's, Hush Puppies and Caterpillar brands -- have taken off, at the expense of the big sneaker brands. "There seems to be an anti-brand backlash," observes Andy Bernstein, an editor at Sporting Goods Business magazine. Cameron noticed the same thing in his focus group studies for Reebok. "People are looking to make an individual statement by wearing their own brands, as opposed to the mass statement that Nike makes," says Cameron. "People in our focus groups referred to the Nike symbol as a 'swooshstika.' "

Battered by slower sales and shifting consumer attitudes, many of the marketers in the category are now questioning core beliefs. Nowhere is this more evident than at Nike. The shoe titan did more than just change its tagline. The brand has begun to nervously hide its heretofore ubiquitous swoosh. At the time of the change, Nike executives explained that it was responding to rampant cynicism in the sports world with a more upbeat, inclusive message. But to some, the new stance seemed like an unmistakable retreat by the company from its own aggressive, in-your-face style. "Nike's problem is Nike itself and the saturation of the swoosh," Morgan Stanley analyst Josephine Esquivel told The Wall Street Journal in late February, after the shoe manufacturer announced layoffs. Interestingly, the financial wiz echoed the criticism of some social workers about sneaker pricing: "Nike got carried away and raised prices on products that didn't offer consumers price value."

Meanwhile, competitors such as Reebok and Fila seem to be equally off-balance. Fila was thought to have locked up the second coming of Jordan when it signed Grant Hill -- but there are indications that fatigued consumers don't want another Super-Endorser cum Spokes-Celebrity. And Reebok? For at least a few years, Reebok imitated almost everything Nike did -- believing, for example, that it could counter Jordan's magic with Shaquille O'Neal's sheer bulk. But now the company is scurrying to distance itself from the hyped-out Shaq. And Reebok's advertising people seem to have realized that they can no longer ride Nike's creative coattails. "Nike created a vocabulary 10 years ago, and everybody's been using that same kind of imagery and vocabulary ever since," says Bill Heater of Heater Advertising, the lead agency for Reebok. "The same athletes, the same photographers. There's a suffocating sameness in the category."

How did this happen to a field that once was the source of the most dynamic ideas in advertising? Through the late 1980s and much of the '90s, Wieden & Kennedy's Nike work led the way in modernizing advertising. By infusing ads with hipness, rebel endorsers, hard-edged attitude, cinematic savvy and soft-sell technique that sometimes seemed to mock conventional selling approaches, Nike ads rewrote all the rules, and served as inspiration to many in the industry today. Reebok occasionally ventured out there, too, with unorthodox campaigns such as "Reebok Lets U.B.U" -- if it was a failure, it was an interesting and worthy one.

But sneaker advertising had become too formulaic by the mid-'90s. Heater believes that the athletic shoe ad came to rely on three basic components -- authenticity, street legitimacy and sports authority. "To provide authenticity," says Heater, "there was a lot of black-and-white imagery and grittiness," often accompanied by a heartfelt first-person narrative that usually purported to reveal the "honest" feelings and experiences of athletes. Street legitimacy came via the injection of hip, urban elements -- a rap music or alternative rock soundtrack, and perhaps a sly pop culture reference -- along with a dose of in-your-face, rebel attitude. And sports authority was simply a function of having the best athletes and teams in the stable, each ready to be trotted out for the next ad.

The formula worked so well that even other product categories copied it. "When you have ads from soft-drink and telephone companies beginning to look like athletic shoe ads, that creates a blur," concedes John Jay, a creative director at Wieden & Kennedy. To its credit, the agency tried countless variations on the theme, many of which were innovative, off-the-wall and stylistically brilliant. But the underlying cocky, prescriptive, hipper-than-thou tone of the ads started to get on people's nerves, as did the company's tendency to deify athletes. The problem was partly one of sheer volume and redundancy. With Nike planting swooshes everywhere, and with everyone else copying Nike's style, oversaturation was inevitable. The result: backlash.

Joanne DeLuca, whose Sputnik market research firm specializes in studying trends and attitudes in the youth market, says that Nike's hard-edged "win-at-all-costs" message (perhaps best exemplified by the memorable ad that instructed, "You don't win silver, you lose gold") began to turn off younger consumers. They believed there was more to sports than just winning. DeLuca says they also grew tired of the incessant glorification of athletes "who didn't seem like real people."

The backlash seems to go beyond Nike, encompassing all hyped-up, full-of-itself advertising and overpaid endorsers. Smart marketers are acting accordingly. Recently, two companies, Adidas and New Balance, have fared well with strategies that rely much less on glitzy ads and high-profile athlete endorsements. To Bernstein, this portends something significant: "I think it says that the rules have changed," he says. "The things that worked in the past don't necessarily work anymore, because the consumer is looking for something new."

The question is, what? Everyone "is trying to come up with the magic bullet," says Heater, whose agency is leaning more heavily on technology in its current ads. Spots starring Allen Iverson feature a nebbishy engineer-type who studies Iverson's whirling dervish moves and connects them to the shoe's aerodynamic design. Younger consumers "are kids who are growing up in a technology world, so they're into tech talk," Heater surmises.

Adidas, meanwhile, seems to be taking a low-key marketing approach. Though the brand has the rights to Kobe Bryant -- already being touted by the NBA as the "next Michael Jordan" -- Adidas has so far kept its own Kobe hype to a minimum. Instead, its current series of ads, by Leagas Delaney in San Francisco, follows the exploits of a group of pot-bellied Yankee fans. The campaign marks "one of the few times you'll ever see a fat guy in a sneaker ad," says Leagas Delaney creative director Harry Cocciolo. And the agency has brought this regular guy approach to a current spot featuring Celtics star Antoine Walker, who is portrayed as a "worker" who "makes baskets" for a living. Cute.

Perhaps the best thing Adidas has going for it is a frugal media budget: "Adidas seems to advertise a lot less, and that may be working in their favor," says Bernstein. "At this point, it seems as if people don't want athletic shoe ads shoved down their throats anymore."

With charismatic super-heroes in dwindling supply, maybe the most sensible path is the one taken by New Balance, which prides itself on producing advertising that is 100-percent superstar-free. Ron Berger, a partner at New Balance agency Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, believes consumers are fed up with "young guys who make so much money and act like jerks." The current New Balance ads try to suggest that sports is simply a part of a full life, as opposed to the be-all and end-all of our existence. "The 'Just do it' message said 'sports is everything, run marathons, be Michael Jordan,' " says Berger. "What we're saying is that there should be a balance in life." The stirring ads show ordinary folk finding refuge from everyday life as they think about running in the woods.

In fairness to athletic shoe companies, it hasn't been easy to avoid imitating Nike, whose advertising has been so prolific and so varied. "It's hard to define a unique position," says Cocciolo, "because Nike has done so much in so many areas. They've done authentic, they've done flamboyant -- they've done it all."

Which may explain why Nike itself is having trouble finding a new voice in the late '90s. Nike's "I Can" campaign isn't nearly as great a departure from the old work as some press reports suggested. Though the initial "I Can" spots featured more everyday people and fewer pros, the stars have come back out as the campaign has unfolded. Basketballer Kevin Garnett figures prominently in the new work, as does boxer Roy Jones Jr. and, of course, Tiger Woods. "I don't buy into that stuff about the overemphasis on athletes," says Jay. Still, the new ads do seem to be bringing the athletes down to earth just a bit. In some of its new TV spots, Nike has scrapped those godlike voiceovers and is allowing athletes to talk directly to the viewer, in a more relaxed tone.

As always, the new Nike work is beautifully executed, both in TV and print. But one of the new TV spots suggests that Nike may still be out of step with new attitudes about sports stars. In "The Fun Team," a group of NBA stars, including Garnett and Tim Hardaway, act as superheroes who come to the rescue at dull, suburban high-school basketball games; the stars take over the kids' game by doing their trademark slam-dunking, and that brings the sleepy crowd to its feet. Obviously, the spot is meant to be a flight of fancy, but it nevertheless implies that we need egomaniacal, showboating pros to teach ordinary kids how to have fun playing ball.

Berger says there's a "softness in Nike's armor" right now, but most competitors believe the company is too good a marketer to not get back on track. What helps is that Nike can now tap into not only W&K's talents, but also those of a second stellar agency, Goodby Silverstein & Partners. "Nike is brilliant at recognizing problems and adjusting to them," Berger says. And the company is still capable of suddenly shaking the world with a campaign, as it did not long ago with Tiger Woods.

In the meantime, the good news about the current turmoil in the market is that it may finally end the game of follow-the-leader. "This is a good time for other brands to make their own statement instead of imitating Nike," says Cameron. "After all, the approach is not working that well for Nike right now. So why

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