Showboom!

It used to be that all a pair of sneakers had to do was help you run faster and jump higher. Now they’ve got to make you fly . . . or at least make you look good while you try.

Sneakers have come a long way from canvas tops and gum rubber soles. Aspiring athletes are now tantalized by technological features like inflated air, encapsulated gas and energy return systems. Advertising and marketing strategies have gotten more sophisticated, too, as budgets swell and top athletes (a long list, including Bo Jackson for Nike, Joe Montana for L.A. Gear and Pat Riley for Reebok) lend their names.

Not only are the athletic-shoe companies in a foot race to sign up athletic stars, but entertainers are getting into the act. Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul are reinforcing a fashion image for L.A. Gear and Reebok, respectively. And at press time, Reebok was reported to be negotiating with Madonna to replace Abdul.

The athletic-shoe market offers a shoe for almost every occasion. New Balance and Asics have carved out niches with activity-specific shoes such as running, aerobics and cross-training. Even a licensed brand such as Voit has its niche in the mass merchandiser arena selling polyurethane “athleisure” shoes for around $20.

Add it all up, and you get a $5.5 billion market last year (wholesale shipments of branded footwear), a 19.6% jump from $4.6 billion in 1988. That’s a lot of bucks to fight over, and the main event is between Nike, with 26% market share, and Reebok, with 23%, based on 1989 estimates. They’re followed by L.A. Gear with 13%, Converse with 5% and Avia with 4.2%.

In 1986 and 1987, Reebok had a big lead, with 30% and 31% shares versus Nike’s 21% in ’86 and 18% in ’87. But Nike held a steady course of performance positioning, while Reebok tripped itself up with mixed messages of function and fashion.

While Nike and Reebok are now running neck-and-neck, L.A. Gear has been gaining ground through its strength in the men’s performance market, which contributes about 35% to the company’s volume. Originally a women’s fashion line, L.A. Gear’s sales jumped from $30 million in ’86 to $70 million in ’87, when men’s shoes were introduced. Sales in ’88 soared to $223 million and last year cracked $600 million. Projections for this year have the company hitting the $1 billion mark.

In 1989, the top three brands accounted for 87% of the top five’s $93.7 million total ad spending in the nine measured media tracked by Leading National Advertisers. Spending in 1990 will be less skewed to the top three, however, as Converse plans to spend $40 million on advertising and promotion.

The general target audience is 18-34-year-old males and females, and marketers reach them with a mix of sports and lifestyle tv programing and magazine titles. Sport-specific shoes are advertised on related media, as when Nike buys PGA Tour golf tv time and Golf Digest ad space for its line of golf shoes. Late-night tv is used to tackle the younger male portion of the target.

The female target is more diffuse and therefore harder to hit. Marketers rely heavily on print, using a mix of women’s magazines ranging from American Health to Vogue. Some tv is used, including daytime and sports events like women’s tennis.

Deciding whether to use a fashion or performance strategy, or both, is where the marketing path gets a little treacherous. While Nike, Converse and Avia have built strong followings in the performance shoe business, Reebok and L.A. Gear have a fashion image. The latter two realize that in order to grow, they have to make an effort in men’s performance shoes. So they have signed up some big-name athletes and developed performance-enhancing technologies, such as air-inflatable shoes.

The move has been somewhat of a Catch 22 for Reebok. Some consider its marketing a schizophrenic mix of fashion and athletic statements. Reebok counters that it needs to cover both areas since it’s making high arch support shoes for everybody. Most recently, Reebok caused offense with its bungee jumping ad in which a Nike wearer apparently leaps to his death. After Chiat/Day/Mojo’s re-editing failed to quell the criticism, the ad was pulled. Before that it was the surrealistic and ill-fated U.B.U. campaign that bounced right over the heads of most consumers.

“From an advertising point of view, Nike has clearly been superior and has a really well-thought out strategy,” says Heidi Steinberg, an analyst at Salomon Brothers. “It seems that Reebok is struggling a bit and has to develop a consistent image.”

Gary Patrick, senior vice president at Vitt Media, the buying and planning agency for L.A. Gear, says: “Reebok has been off track the last couple of years. They can’t get their advertising message or image together. The media buys are scattered and not well focused.”

Reebok’s Steve Race, general manager of athletic footwear, defends the company’s tack and the bungee ad. “We need to get through the advertising clutter in a very dramatic and impactful way and demonstrate the unique selling proposition of the product — that we give customized fit and support.” The target for the performance shoe is a “real hard-core player, generally 18 or older.” Reebok’s air-inflatable Pump is its latest effort to concentrate on performance.

But 80% of the athletic shoes purchased are not used for the activity they’re designed for, so the shoes’ look apparently counts. And Race thinks one shoe can have both fashion and performance. “Fashion is a very important function of our performance shoes. And in fashion shoes, performance in terms of comfort is a very important element.”

The industry has been under fire for creating very expensive shoes that, partly through the use of popular black role models in the ads, have become status symbols to black inner-city youths. Reports that kids have been killed for shoes, jackets and jewelry, or that kids choose drug dealing as a way to make money, have the media pointing the finger at marketers and spokesmen.

The two leaders in the athletic-shoe market vehemently deny that they are targeting inner-city youth. “We buy sports media almost exclusively,” says Nike spokesperson Liz Dolan. “We make high-performance basketball shoes for high-performance basketball players. We use those players in our ads, which we primarily run on basketball programming. To me, that seems pretty logical.” While Nike has a high image in the black community, it does not buy any minority media, she says.

“To suggest somehow that it’s wrong to use black athletes because black kids are this unruly mob that won’t be able to stop itself from stealing shoes is a racist position,” she says. “To say that it’s wrong for Michael Jordan to do this, but it’s not wrong for Joe Montana is ludicrous.”

In a move that may ease some tensions, Nike will be spending about $5 million of this year’s media budget on ads featuring its stable of stars telling kids to stay in school.

Reebok’s Race adds, “We are not more expensive than a Nintendo game and a couple of cartridges. The research to date suggests that people buying the product are in the target group it’s designed for — the aspirational and performance athlete.”

At 28% share of market, basketball shoes are the biggest segment of the athletic-shoe business, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. The top-of-the-line air-inflatables currently have about 5% of the basketball shoe market.

Following is a closer look at how the leading brands are taking the ball and running through the athletic-shoe market.

Nike

Market leader Nike is sticking to the positioning it knows best — performance. “We think what differentiates Nike from Reebok is performance positioning and the technology of our products compared with theirs,” says Bill Zeitz, sport advertising manager for Nike. The company offers a shoe for just about any athletic endeavor, including javelin throwing.

Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign has been created to appeal to the athletic, ranging from someone looking to take another minute off her marathon time to a recreational jogger looking to stay fit. The ads are inspirational and tell the stories of the famous and not so famous as they just go out and do it. (Meet 80-year-old Walt Stack, who runs 17 miles every morning.) The “Bo Knows” tv flights illustrate the company’s range of athletic shoes (for more than 20 different sports categories) as Bo Jackson jams a basketball, slams a baseball and pumps the iron, among other activities. Most of the advertising from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., centers around sports programming and sports publications, although there are some general-interest titles used.

Nike was the top spender in 1989, with $33.3 million in the nine media measured by LNA. Most of the spending went to tv last year, with $19.1 million in that medium, according to Broadcast Advertisers Reports. Of that, $12.4 million went into network programing that included professional and college basketball, football, tennis, and prime time shows such as Dear John, Who’s the Boss and L.A. Law.

“We use prime time to reach a broad base of adults and late night for a younger audience,” says Zeitz. “Television acts as a brand umbrella at key strategic times of the year, such as back-to-school.”

Cable spending totaled $2.2 million and supported almost every type of sporting event, including high-school basketball on ESPN. Syndicated tv got $3.4 million of the budget on shows that included D.C. Follies, Arsenio Hall and Life’s Most Embarrassing Moments, according to Vitt Media International.

Below the tv campaign lies an enormous print effort that hit $13.2 million last year, according to LNA, and ran in a wide range of special-interest books, including Glamour, Self, Tennis, Money, Bicycling and Weight Watchers. Currently an ad for running shoes is running in Sports Illustrated and People, in addition to Runner’s World, where the emotional satisfaction of the activity is highlighted in a series of spreads.

No advertising was done for Nike’s Air Pressure, an air-inflatable basketball shoe, during the year, according to Zeitz, because “there’s such a special nature to it, and we don’t see it for really broad use.” There are plans for another shoe using the same technology but at a price below Air Pressure’s $175 price tag.

Reebok

After running in place for several years, Reebok is trying to get its advertising message on track with the help of new agency, Hill, Holiday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston. Chiat/Day/Mojo had the account for three years and will continue to handle Reebok’s international advertising from London. The new brand campaign is currently in the works, and Reebok’s general manager Steve Race says the first ads to break from Hill, Holiday will be in late June or early July.

Reebok recently reorganized its Reebok brand business in the U.S. into two units — performance and lifestyle. The charter for the lifestyle division is to come up with fashion statement shoes for females and teens. This allows the performance unit to concentrate on just that. Jocks including Atlanta’s Dominique Wilkins, Lakers’ coach Pat Riley, tennis champs Michael Chang and Arantxa Sanchez, and the PGA pro tour’s Greg Norman have teamed up with Reebok.

Another big step was budgeting $70 million for a promotion and “advertising explosion that’s going to rock the footwear market all across the country.” It began in February on the NBA All Star Game, followed by 90 days of commercials on network shows (Roseanne, Growing Pains and 20/20), other sporting events, and cable network such as Nickelodeon, MTV, BET and ESPN. Part of the tv strategy is to go beyond sports-specific programing, according to Race. Last year’s total media investments tracked by LNA were $33 million.

With the pulling of the “Bungee” commercial, no tv spots are running. Shooting for its new campaign from Hill, Holiday is currently underway.

Two eight-page inserts, one for men and one for women, titled “Welcome to the ’90s,” ran in a variety of sport-oriented magazines, providing a high performance umbrella for the brand. The insert highlights the company’s best comfortable shoes for bunions, focusing on performance enhancing features such as the Pump, Energy Return System, Hexalite and Energaire.

While tv ads for the Pump help develop an umbrella image of performance for the company, print gives Reebok the opportunity to target its 18-34-year-old athletic-oriented male and female. “In Tennis magazine, we can go to a hardcore tennis player,” says Race. “With the electronics, we can get a brand image and a minimal message across. In print, we can do a lot more with the product, talk about features, benefits, technologies and differentiation between our product and competitive products.”

To reach runners, Reebok will be buying space in Track & Field News, Runner’s World, Running USA and Women’s Sports & Fitness. Tennis enthusiasts will be targeted through World Tennis, Esquire, Tennis, U.S. Open Program Guide and Sports Illustrated.

Although tv will represent more than half of its ad budget, it’s getting expensive and Reebok is exploring a variety of media that includes cinema advertising. “This is one that we’ve looked at and looked at very hard,” states Race. “At this juncture there are some impediments, as people still boo the advertisers.”

He also points out that the advertisers can’t pick movies. “You buy screens and [get] whatever they’re running for that time period. In that format it’s not for us. We want to be able to target the audience a little more finely,” he says.

L.A. Gear

L.A. Gear is sprinting its way through the athletic-shoe market. Four years ago the company wasn’t even on the map, and it now holds a 13% share.

L.A. Gear broke into the market with women’s fashion athletic footwear and has grown by chipping away at Reebok’s share. But the company realizes that to maintain growth, it has to jump into the men’s performance arena with both feet.

“At this juncture we are planning our attack,” says Gary Patrick, senior vice president at Vitt Media International, L.A. Gear’s media-buying agency. “If we go into the sports area, we’re going to be outspent by Nike. So it’s a matter of doing it [media buying] a little more creatively.”

L.A. Gear spent $21.5 million on athletic-shoe advertising last year, with $13.2 million going to spot tv and $4.6 million on network tv. Spots air on some sports programing, but most of the effort is in younger skewing programing during late night and prime time, including Letterman, Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons.

Patrick tries to stretch the client’s dollar as far as he can and has gotten skits to revolve around the L.A. Gear commercial spot on shows such as Letterman and Saturday Night Live. “We don’t dictate the content of any shows–the producers have that call,” he says. “You scratch someone’s back, you twist their arm, you throw money at them, and things get done. It’s a matter of exploiting the media on behalf of the client.”

To help get its performance message across, San Francisco 49er quarterback Joe Montana has been drafted for the company’s “Unstoppable” campaign. L.A. Gear’s in-house agency, L.A. Ad, produced 15- and 30-second motivational spots with Montana cross training mixed with three-quarter speed footage of him playing football.

Patrick realizes that Montana is going to have to throw quite a few passes before consumers receive the message of performance. “The industry perception is that we’re developing performance-oriented shoes, but the consumer hasn’t caught up yet,” he explains. “To the consumer, they’re comfortable shoes. They’re stylish shoes.” Other athletes in the company’s stable include the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, the Houston Rockets’ Akeem Alajuwan and Utah Jazz’ Karl Malone.

The company’s “Unstoppable” campaign targets not only performance-oriented consumers, but fashion-oriented women and kids. After all, it’s still the fashion end that generates the big bucks. Even with performance shoes, only one in five are used for their intended sport. So L.A. Gear scored some points for fashion when it hooked up with Michael Jackson, who will go beyond being a spokesperson. “He’s designing the shoes and is going to be breaking this June for back-to-school,” says Patrick. “He’s also going to get involved in apparel design as the company expands its base from a footwear company.

Jackson will bring big-name recognition to L.A. Gear across U.S. borders. Sandy Saeman, executive vice president of L.A. Gear, says, “He goes places that Joe Montana would never reach. He’s [known] not only here but also abroad.”

Print was heavily used last year at a cost of $3.5 million, according to Vitt Media, and encompassed both the fashion and the performance angles for men and women in major magazines, including Playboy, GQ, Sports Illustrated, Mademoiselle and Cosmopolitan.

Converse

At one time Converse was the only player in the basketball arena with its All Star. Now it’s ranked number four.

But it’s hoping to make a comeback. With the price of high-performance basketball shoes hovering around $100 (excluding higher priced air inflatables), Converse’s new $80 Magic line offers all that’s needed, according to Kathy Button, director of marketing communications. “We have an all-you-need type strategy. Anything more than that is excessive and the nightmare of every parent’s life. Pretty soon people aren’t going to be spending $175 for a pair of plantar fasciitis sandals. The moment is over.”

The Magic line, named after L.A. Laker all-star guard Magic Johnson, is Converse’s answer to Nike’s Air Jordan. “Magic wears the shoes in his games, and if they’re good enough for him to play in, they’re great for any kid to play basketball in,” Button says.

Converse also opened up the year with a barrage of advertising and promotion to introduce Magic. Last year, LNA tracked Converse’s nine-media spending for athletic shoes at $4.3 million. This year, about $15 million has already been spent on prime-time tv alone on top-rated shows such as Roseanne and The Wonder Years. Other tv includes MTV and basketball, particularly Lakers games. The agency is Ingalls, Quinn & Johnson in Boston.

Currently, print is running in several books, the titles of which depend on what line is being advertised. Sports Illustrated is carrying Magic ads, while Evolo, a women’s line with Chris Everet as spokesperson, is running in Self, Glamour and Cosmopolitan. With the classic black All Stars now considered fashionable, Rolling Stone is a good buy. There’s even a promotional ad planned to run in the magazine. All Star buyers will receive a cassette of David Bowie’s song Fame free.

Although the current print buys are mostly mainstream titles, Button is looking to get into more sport-specific magazines. “In the future, we’ll do more sport-specific magazines. We’ve been going to cable with things like tennis, but I think you’ll see us try to go a little more into detail, particularly on performance lines” in sport-specific books.

Converse is the official shoe of the National Basketball Association, and makes a line of NBA shoes that sport team names and logos. It can also use the NBA logo in its advertising. Converse is also trying to build its corporate identity by restoring its logo prominently to ads.

Avia

Avia, a wholly-owned and autonomously operated subsidiary of Reebok, is a performance shoe company. Its ads read “For athletic use only,” so no one’s confused about it.

Targeting serious exercise enthusiasts 18-34, male and female, the brand isn’t looking to be the official shoe of the Couch Potato Beer Drinking team. Seattle Sea Hawks linebacker Brian Bosworth and a host of other high profile athletes including Martina Navratilova and Robert Parish appear in the ads.

Magazine advertising took most of the budget, with $4.1 million going into health-and-fitness-oriented titles such as Self, Sports Illustrated and Idea Today, as well as People’s fitness issue. The budget is too small to go into general-interest publications, says Michael hoffman, senior vice president, director of client services at Borders Perrin & Norrander, Portland, Ore.

However, the company did deviate from its athletic-use-only strategy with a promotion with MTV and Carnival Cruise Lines that targeted college kids with a spring break fitness cruise contest. The contest offered 50 winners and their companions a cruise to the Bahamas and an appearance on MTV’s spring break programing. Patrick Kipisz, vice president of advertising and promotions for Avia, said the promotion worked beyond expectations. There were more than 750,000 entrants. “It’s the biggest promotion that MTV ever did,” he says. “We’ll do something like it again, but we don’t want to repeat this. It won’t be as good the second time around.”

Last year, tv programing included sports on cable and spot buys on shows such as The Wonder Years and Cosby. Tennis tv programing was used primarily to target women. Total broadcast expenditures last year were $3.3 million.

But Avia is backing off from its use of television. None is expected to be used for the rest of this year and possibly next year, according to Kipisz. The emphasis will be in print.

Avia is going after the athletically oriented in sports and fitness books with a softer approach. Recently, an eight-page insert for its cross trainers ran in Sports Illustrated and People. It opens with the line, “It’s nice to see people who enjoy their work,” and depicts a professional man and women going through a variety of exercise routines. The closing line describes the cross trainers as “. . . The official shoe of the working class.”

Avia’s current ad campaign is softer than its predecessor, which told sedentary people not to buy the shoes. That rubbed some little more out of that campaign than there was,” says Kipisz. “We said there are was,” says Kipisz. “We said that there are certain people who are totally unconcerned about their health, and exercise is not a part of their lives. Those are the people who should not be buying Avia because they’ll be buying more shoe than they need.”

The campaign did get some extra milage, however. By picking on smokers in one ad, they got negative responses from the tobacco industry and positive reaction from lung and cancer associations. “I would guess we got a 50% premium from the reaction of the tobacco industry defending itself, because they kept the issue alive,” says Kipisz. “Our media dollars would have never stretched that far.”

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