Tuesday, December 07, 2004

hot air

I started thinking about Reebok the other day and their recent simultaneous promotion of two products featuring The Pump technology: the new Pump 2.0 running shoe and the old-school The Pump Bringback. Newspaper articles labeled the 2.0 as the greatest sneaker innovation of the year, though actually Adidas and Nike scooped Reebok on the technology forefront by introducing the new laceless T-Mac 4 and NikeFree running shoes, respectively, not to mention the new computer controlled Adidas runner due out at the end of the year.

Though the new Reebok shoe is certainly noteworthy, and the old Pump was a revolutionary concept when it came out in 1989, it’s all still the same technology story they’ve been telling for 15 years. They haven’t done anything truly new since they introduced DMX misdsole technology in the early ‘90s. That’s a long time without a new idea.

I started wondering if there were any truly new ideas at Reebok these days, and if not, then why. I also wondered why the press was making such a big deal over the 2.0 when all it is was an improvement on the late ‘90s Pump Fury runner.

I came to two realizations as I pondered these questions. One; long before other companies jumped onto the ‘retro’ bandwagon, Reebok was at the forefront, mainly because other companies had out-researched them, and selling retreads of old designs was the easiest way to rake in the dough and still remain relevant. Two; due to the sudden growth of rival New Balance, specifically their classics and cross-training line, Reebok had a serious contender for the ‘non-athletic’ portion for the shoe market. Enter the two heavily-promoted Pump models, offering a brief respite from sliding sales with a mild technological stance.

From those realizations, I came to another insight: Aside from The Pump, apparel contracts, and a dominant position in middle-market department stores for sentimentalist designs, there’s not a lot going on at Reebok.

I’m not saying these things about Reebok to hate on them solely. I think that for what they do, they do a decent job. Plus several other companies have an innovation gap as well, including K-Swiss. But it brings about an important point:

In order to be considered a good athletic shoe company, you have to advance your technology as well as please the fashion and comfort camps.

Nike and Adidas have invested millions of dollars into creating shoes that both athletes and fashionistas can agree on. They have made a case for their products by making them work for athletes and that dedication is given back to them as love by consumers. The good designs of old become the casual favorites of a new generation, because they still work.

These companies do not rest on their laurels. Nike still makes the Air Force One, but it’s also cranking out innovative technology like Shox, IMPAX, and the various Air systems. Ditto for Adidas, which is still selling shell-toes, but is also pushing a3 and ClimaCool technology to those who need it. Even New Balance and Asics are still delivering the goods for the athletes with Absorb foam and IGS stabilization systems, respectively.

Reebok’s goal with the Pumps is to make sneaker buyers want to pay more than $100 for shoes again, something the industry began to loose back when that same company charged $175.00 for a gimmicky overly-heavy shoe that couldn’t perform back in 1989.

By raing the prices of seemingly everyday things like sneakers to an aspirational level, you create a short-term demand, but you can also create cynacism, especially if the product people paid a lots of money for is just a gimmick. The Pump became the poster child for excess, prompting parents to stop trying to outfit their children in the latest high-tops. That in turn helped deflate the market for high-tops specifically and sneakers in general in the early '90s.

Charging a premium price for exclusivity with marginal results doesn’t work for long, and yet Reebok keeps trying it. The slow-selling Iverson line has recently begun copying the looks and price of old Jordan brand models with clunky technology and as such, the people who buy Iverson models are doing it out of their loe for Allen and not for the shoes.

The only Iverson model that moved in round numbers was The Question mid-high, and that has been retread continuously for almost a decade, even seeing a diamond-encrusted edition this holiday season. It’s like they’re running on a hamster-wheel.

Despite my rant, the situation at Reebok may not change anytime soon and they have no compelling reason to change, because they’re still making money. But it stands to reason that any company that sells sizzle and not steak cannot be a serious contender for the hearts and minds of sneakerheads. No one collects L.A.Gears or Troops.

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