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Three years ago, Reebok International set out to unseat Nike as the world's top sports and fitness brand. Reebok Chairman Paul Fireman's bold goal: No. 1 by '95.

Well, it's 1995. Reebok is still No. 2-and Nike is as strong as ever. But slowly, surely, there has been a change in the way athletes, sports fans and sneaker-hip kids view the Reebok brand. Three years ago, Reebok meant aerobics, walking and women. Today, it means Shaquille O'Neal, Emmitt Smith and Frank Thomas-the athlete icons of the '90s and beyond.

Reebok has yet to win the war, but it has won credibility.

"We've lost the Michael Jordan generation. That battle has been lost-Nike owns them," said Tom Carmody, Reebok general manager-North America. "To be honest, three years ago, if you were in a basketball game and you saw a kid in Reeboks, you'd think, `I can take him. I can get a step on him.' I think we've turned that thinking around."

The next stage is a two-year marketing offensive in a vigorous bid to bump Nike. This year will see:

More inspired and focused advertising from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, entering its sophomore season with Reebok after an admittedly unimpressive rookie year.

Major expansion of its apparel business with the fall launch of NFL-licensed merchandise.

More cross-promotion with other marketers, like General Mills' Wheaties, to strengthen Reebok's status as a leading sports brand.

And in 1996, Reebok will boost its media budget by 25% to $100 million and spend more on brand imaging ads. The Atlanta Summer Olympics will be a major focus of Reebok's '96 marketing; the company is negotiating an unprecedented and exclusive sports marketing partnership with Olympic officials.

Reebok posted worldwide sales of $2.8 billion last year, up 13.4% from '93. Nike's sales rose 6.3% to $3.87 billion.

In the U.S. footwear market, Reebok is narrowing the gap after losing ground in '93, when sales slid 13% to $1.27 billion. Last year, it bounced back to $1.4 billion. Nike grew 12.6% during the Reebok lag, reaching $1.96 billion in '93. But Nike slowed to 3.1% growth last year, hitting $2.02 billion.

As the '93 decline shows, Reebok's transition from a fitness brand to a sports and fitness brand hasn't been smooth. Until recently, its athletic performance product, especially in basketball, has been lackluster. Reebok spent millions on athletes but lacked experience on how to handle and market them.

But late '94 saw a turnaround. Reebok had one of the hottest basketball shoes last fall, the Kamikaze Kemp, backed by a videogame-esque Burnett spot that spoke to the sensibilities of its 12-to-17-year-old target audience.

And the Shaq Attaq IV basketball shoe, hitting stores now, is getting raves from retailers, as has the latest Shaq spot, a two-part special effects stunner that features a team of Shaqs playing another teams of Shaqs.

"It took Burnett a year to really learn our business and get to know Reebok," said David Ropes, Reebok senior VP-integrated marketing. "We dumped a lot of work on them in year one, and didn't really afford them a chance to assess and catch their breath."

Another key marketing tool for Reebok is its growing involvement with the NFL. Reebok will outfit four teams next year, and its logo will be visible on the uniforms of the Detroit Lions. Sales of NFL-licensed apparel are expected to be strong. Reebok's U.S. apparel sales are already robust, up 19.6% to $150 million in '94. By contrast, U.S. apparel sales for Nike slipped 1% to $354 million.

But with Nike posting increases in overall '94 sales and '95 orders, Reebok is still years away from overtaking its rival. So Reebok will continue to position itself as the Nike of the '90s among a new generation of media-savvy athletes and sports fans through its recently launched Planet Reebok site on the Internet and its "PETV" physical education program in 11,000 middle schools.

Reebok will also invest more in regional marketing, leveraging its athletes in their home areas. And later this year, Reebok athletes will grace Wheaties box covers.

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