Building The Infinite Brand

Larry LightJanuary 4, 20214 min

A great brand does not need to be a big brand in terms of size. But, it does need to be a big brand in terms of its power to engage people’s imagination. For example, Nike, Coca Cola, McDonald’s, Apple, Beetle are great brands.

Unfortunately, Reebok, once a great brand of the 1970s and 1980s is about to be an orphan. Adidas, the second-largest sportswear maker in the world, bought Reebok in 2005. Today, Adidas wants to sell Reebok. Adidas was never able to replicate the extraordinary, out-sized success of Reebok. A look at the history of Reebok shows how the brand lost its way. Great brands and iconic brands can last forever. But, only if properly managed.

Reebok’s Origins

Reebok represented the beginnings of the gym-fitness scene, especially for women. Think Jane Fonda aerobic videos. Think John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis in Perfect, the 1985 film based on an article in Rolling Stone magazine about health clubs and singles. Reebok has one of those incredible stories. Its provenance is fascinating.

In an English workshop, a fourteen-year old named Joseph William Foster designed some of the earliest spiked running shoes. In 1900, he founded his business adding his sons soon after. The company J.W. Foster and Sons became famous across the British Empire for innovative athletic shoes. The Olympic runner, Harold Abrahams, wore a pair of Foster’s “running pumps” in the Paris Summer Olympics in 1924. Mr. Abraham was commemorated in the film, Chariots of Fire.

Two of J. W. Foster’s grandsons, Joe and Jeff Foster, created a new enterprise in 1958 called Reebok. Reebok shoes were popular internationally. But, it was not until 1979 that Reebok entered America’s consciousness.

At a trade show in Chicago, a young man named Paul Fireman saw Reeboks. Mr. Fireman worked in his family’s outdoor and fishing gear business in Boston, MA. Looking for something else to do, Mr. Fireman asked one of Foster’s grandsons for the rights to license and sell Reeboks in the U.S. In the space of two years, in 1981, Reebok’s sales were $1.5 million.

Reebok’s Advantage

Mr. Fireman saw the explosion of health clubs and aerobic classes. Most gyms focused on men and bodybuilding. Health clubs and aerobics had large female participants. Reebok gave women the Reebok Freestyle aerobics shoe in 1982. The Reebok Freestyle was the first athletic shoe designed for women.

If you lived in Los Angeles in the early 1980’s, it seemed as if every woman’s foot was wearing a Reebok Freestyle shoe. It was as if you were not serious about aerobics if you were not wearing the Reebok Freestyle. This particular, highly attractive athletic shoe captured the imagination of women. It was a physical entry to the world of fitness before fitness became fitness, as we know fitness today. Reebok owned aerobics. It was the brand that perfectly fit that junction of time, values, excitement, and personal health focus. The Reebok Freestyle was part of the liberating acceptance of women into non-professional physical fitness. The Reebok Freestyle was so successful that by 1983, Reebok’s sales were $13 million.

Reebok’s success led Mr. Fireman to buy the U.K.-based parent company in 1984. The Reebok brand went public in 1985. And, during the 1980’s, with new shoe products, shoe innovations, clothing, and accessories, Reebok’s sales soared to $1 billion. Reebok closed sponsorship deals and sports celebrity endorsements. Reebok was one of the most connected sports brands next to Nike. The brand was soon part of the Adidas family.

Reebok’s Decline

For whatever reasons, and there are multiple instances to point to, Adidas could not keep the energy going. Adidas replaced Paul Fireman. Adidas pushed Reebok into a wide array of partnerships. These diluted the image of Reebok. The logo was changed a few times, each time with a new rationale. What Reebok stood for was lost.

There were all sorts of turnaround plans and restructurings. There were write-downs and strategic plans. Adidas had hoped that Reebok would be a linchpin for competing with Nike. Cost cuts did yield profit on the bottom line. But as one analyst told The Wall Street Journal, “Returning profit was a good step but driving the top line is something else.”

Coronavirus has closed the door on many great brands. Neiman Marcus, J. C. Penney, Nordstrom are just a few. All of these had issues before coronavirus. It is the same with Reebok. There is no reason for great brands to disappear except for brand mismanagement. In Reebok’s case, they lost the core promise of the brand. Reebok lost its core identity.

Some marketers talk about a brand lifecycle. They say that brands go through several stages from birth to growth, to plateau to decline to death. This is wrong. Brands do not have to follow a natural lifecycle. Brands can and do live forever. Brands do not have to die. Factories may close and turn to rust. Technology becomes outdated. Brands can live forever if properly managed.

The Reebok brand is not dead. It can be revitalized. Let’s hope that whoever buys Reebok will focus on articulating Reebok’s core promise in a relevant, differentiated, trustworthy way. Let’s hope that the new owner will focus on delivering that promise consistently to every customer, every time, everywhere.

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