REEBOK STILL SWINGING AT WOMEN’S BUSINESS

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Reebok International is working on yet
another makeover.
Known for jump-starting the aerobics trend in the Eighties, the brand struggled in the Nineties to update its image with female consumers. Reebok, a $2.9 billion brand, is now trying to get back on track with refined distribution, a leaner staff, more stylish activewear, a new fitness-oriented Web site and better marketing.
In a phone interview from the company’s new corporate headquarters in Canton, Mass., Angel Martinez, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, outlined the company’s initiatives.
This spring, the company will unveil its “revamped” footwear and activewear, the first collection under the direction of Chris Lee, who joined Reebok a year ago as creative director. The former merchandiser at Wade Smith, a directional activewear store in Liverpool, England, Lee’s mission has been to consolidate the design process and relay a more cohesive image for the brand. Product categories are now pooling their respective visions — something they did not do in the past.
“We made some poor decisions about distribution and bad production,” he said, referring to the brand’s selling to mass marketers and discounters and its use of poor-quality fabrics. “We’re looking to get out of the real low-end and move the entire brand up a couple notches.”
That strategy involves using more of its proprietary technical fabrics like Play Dri, Hydromove and a variety of performance-oriented products consumers want, Martinez said. This spring “Studiowear,” a collection of workout wear aimed at women over the age of 18 who favor exercise classes, and “City Gym,” an urban-influenced group for fashion-conscious women between the ages of 16 and 24, bow at retail. Reebok’s spring women’s apparel line has 95 styles compared to 71 pieces a year ago.
Focusing more on fashion is a swift move for athletic companies, according to Margaret Mager, footwear and apparel analyst for Goldman Sachs.
“They need to do that if they want to stay relevant to their consumers and not just be worn to the gym,” she said. “Fashion trends are dressier. Even if they do get sportier, it’s going to be a challenge. Athletic brands stand for almost the ultimate in casual.”
Women account for about 25 percent of Reebok’s $253.8 million U.S. apparel sales. Martinez’s goal is to increase that figure to 60 percent.
The company spent more than $1 million updating its Web site, which relaunched last week. Now, visitors can develop customized workouts, consult with personal trainers, and check out news from places like the American College of Sports Medicine. Last month, Reebok signed a partnership deal with the ACSM.
“Our product isn’t just footwear or apparel, it’s software, as well,” Martinez said.
The aim is to make it easier for people to access information and to get them more involved, preferably in Reebok-related programs. To try to draw more attention to the brand, the company has launched Reebok Core training, a proprietary exercise program that can be used individually or in group fitness classes. A 20-city tour, which shows the activity to consumers, wraps up next month. Group classes will be introduced at health clubs next month.
On another front, Reebok is fine-tuning its pitch to women and has increased its marketing budget by more than 10 percent. For the first time since 1992, women will play a major role in the advertising campaign that will be introduced for spring.
The company is still counting on tennis star and Olympic gold medalist Venus Williams, a Reebok-sponsored athlete, to rev up interest in the brand. But sponsoring athletes is no longer a priority, as evidenced by Sydney, where about 2,500 competitors were Reebok-sponsored compared to 4,000 at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
“I don’t think we properly leveraged athletes as we should have,” Martinez said. “We were off the mark in a lot of ways.”
Men and women approach sport differently, Martinez said. Men tend to be more interested in winning at all costs, whereas women think it’s more important to be on the team instead of “pulverizing” the opponent and winning, he said.
“As an industry, I don’t think we fully understand those things. We need to get more women involved in the decision making about what works in talking to women,” Martinez said. “Fundamentally, perhaps there were too many men making decisions about how to use women athletes to market to women.”
In the past, Reebok “put out too many messages,” Martinez said. But the label’s strength is its “inclusiveness,” which helps consumers achieve its fitness goals.
“We’re not about saying the most important thing to do is to win,” he said.
Like other industries, the apparel sector is trying to distinguish their brands in a society cluttered with media and marketing images, Martinez said.
“It’s become a battle for attention-getting,” he said. “There’s no disputing that. It’s almost as though you have to do something on TV to get noticed, or banned by a network. Or why bother?”
Reebok’s “Thirsty” commercial, a spot featuring urine drinking that CBS banned this summer, can now be seen at Reebok.com. The company also offered a $1 million endorsement deal to the “Survivor” winner, before he was named.
On another front, Martinez was critical of athletic specialty stores and sporting chains for doing a “mediocre” job of attracting women to their stores. Some retailers continue to offer some “pretty archaic” approaches, such as devoting sales floors to annual ski sales, which exclude year-round athletes, Martinez said.
Having focused on generating sales for years, retailers are beginning to realize women need more information, solid customer service and quality products, he said. Athletic brands also have the advantage of merchandising a lifestyle. Instead of just having an area for running apparel, stores can add running shoes, reflective vests and other running-related products in one area.
“It’s a lot of work, but once you have that customer, she depends on your quality service and products. She’s not going to go somewhere else for a 10 percent discount,” Martinez said. “You have the customer and the whole family.”
Martinez dismissed the suggestion that Nike’s decision to set up a separate women’s business prompted Reebok to take a closer look at its own. Kathy O’Connell Johnson, vice president of fitness and interactive marketing, has been a key proponent of Reebok’s women’s business for years, Martinez said. In addition, Sharon Barbano, a seasoned executive in women’s sports marketing, rejoined Reebok three months ago as group director of Reebok women after a five-year hiatus.
What has changed is how the company has streamlined its decision-making process. Meetings with 15 people have dwindled to four. Some of that consolidation was due to layoffs. In the past two years, Reebok passed out pink slips to 1,160 employees worldwide.
“It’s amazing what some focus and streamlining will do,” Martinez said. “It gives you a clearer idea of what works.”
Despite being pinpointed as the heir apparent to Paul Fireman, chairman and chief executive officer, Martinez said that is not something he thinks about or has discussed with others. Building a brand that shareholders can be happy with remains his main priority.
“This is not about any kind of corporate ladder or hierarchy. I’m not motivated by that,” Martinez said. “It sounds like the party line but that’s the way I’ve been for 20 years.”

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