Reebok Is Quietly Emerging as a Challenger Brand to Contend With

Athletic company is leveraging 'tough fitness' movement to boost sales

For Reebok, the race to distill the soul of its brand—and ignite sales to reverse its market-share decline—has been more of a marathon than a sprint. But with its "Be More Human" global repositioning, the finish line might just be in sight.

Launched last month, "Be More Human" casts the athletic apparel and footwear company as a coach, cheerleader and, the brand hopes, gear supplier to everyday athletes who embrace a "no pain, no gain" mentality to attain personal fulfillment. "We want to be peoples' partners in their journey," said Yan Martin, Reebok's vp, global brand communications. "This is a mission we've been on for years."

Unfortunately, the company has also spent years losing ground to the competition. Since its acquisition by Adidas in 2006, Reebok's share of the U.S. sneaker market has fallen to about 2 percent from nearly 8 percent, per SportsOneSource. (Meanwhile, Nike's share has nearly doubled in the past decade to 60 percent.) To some extent, Reebok has become a challenger brand, and it now mirrors the real folks shown in "Be More Human," who bust their tails and lose gallons of sweat to stay in shape and better themselves. Presumably, Reebok can feel their pain.



TV, online videos and an info-packed microsite eschew glitz, glitter and celebrity endorsers. Forays into fashion, where shoes and apparel become hipster accessories, are likewise absent. (Reebok's trod those paths before, unsuccessfully.) Instead, we're told that strenuous personal sacrifice—such as rising before dawn for extreme exercise sessions—ultimately helps people make greater contributions to their families and communities. "We do it to be better. Period," explained the voiceover of "Freak Show," the campaign's 60-second anthem spot. Much of the work focuses on the rapidly growing "tough fitness" category where the brand has established a strong presence through deals with high-intensity workout firm CrossFit and the grueling, muddy Spartan Race. 

"We were basically trying to come up with an idea that felt provocative and spoke to our audience in an authentic way," said Will McGinness, ecd at Reebok agency Venables Bell & Partners. "Tough fitness is an organic movement driven by everyday people, and we wanted to shine a spotlight on their dedication."

Though the message can seem preachy, industry watchers generally applaud the approach because it's true to Reebok's heritage—the brand rose to prominence in the '80s as a serious running shoe—and taps into CrossFit and other hot trends. "I can see how this can expand into talking one-on-one with very specific target groups," noted Åsk Wäppling, who blogs about marketing at Adland. What's more, she said the campaign provides a refreshingly honest counterpoint to competitors' star-fueled ads by depicting a world most consumers can instantly relate to. "The color palette of the TV ad is so nice, bringing rainy, dreary reality to the Reebok universe," she said.

Actually, the company's universe has been somewhat less dreary of late. Reebok has leveraged its tough-fitness prowess to record seven straight quarters of net sales growth, reversing a long-term downward trend. There's been talk of Adidas potentially unloading the brand—the German firm insists that Reebok remains a key offering over the long haul—but experts say doubling down on the tough-fitness message makes sense regardless of ownership. (Indeed, early "Be More Human" engagement numbers reflect consumer interest. The lead video has garnered about 20 million views across all platforms in its first two weeks, and the campaign's "Human Score" online fitness test boasts an 85 percent completion rate, which Martin said has surpassed the company's expectation.)

"Reebok's fitness positioning is unique and correct," said Matt Powell, an analyst at NPD Group. While it may "take some time to catch hold," he believes the overall strategy "positions the brand for future success."

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