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Why Reebok May Win With Athlete Who Lost

June 30, 1992|BRUCE HOROVITZ

Psst. Wanna buy a pair of never-before-worn Reebok TV commercials?

Reebok has no use for them. One spot features the shoemaker's highly publicized "Dan & Dave" decathlon duo cutting each other off on the track--then angling for camera time. The other ad features quick cuts of the athletes training for what was supposed to be their showdown in the grueling decathlon in the Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

But reality got in the way. When Dan O'Brien flopped during the pole vault portion of the U.S. Olympic track and field trials over the weekend, he ran a pole through the heart of Reebok's flashy, $25-million-plus ad campaign pitting the two top American athletes against each other.

As a result, Reebok killed the two ads it was to air during the telecast. And a campaign that has been building steam since January is suddenly on the ropes.

Reebok marketing executives are frantically trying to salvage the campaign. From now on, it will focus on Dave Johnson's attempts to become the greatest athlete in the world. And Dan will likely become more of a cheerleader than a participant. But some marketing experts say Reebok blew it coming out of the starting blocks.

"Reebok put all of its money on two horses, and one of them didn't even show," said Clive Chajet, chairman of the corporate identify firm Lippincott & Margulies.

Worse yet, "Reebok violated one of the biggest rules in the marketing world: Don't try to predict the future," said Jack Trout, president of the Greenwich, Conn.-based marketing strategy firm Trout & Ries. "The conflict they set up between the two athletes is gone. Now, all they have is egg on their face."

Egg or not, Reebok executives are trying to put the best face on the situation. "I'd say to any critic that this campaign has raised Reebok's brand awareness beyond our wildest expectations," said David Ropes, vice president of worldwide advertising at Reebok.

Indeed, a recent poll revealed that nearly 70% of the public is not only familiar with the two men, but can also link them with the Reebok brand.

And Reebok executives also point out--accurately--that the misfortune of their spokesman failing to qualify for the Summer Olympics has generated a ton of free--albeit mostly negative--publicity.

"Do you think anyone will downgrade the performance of the Reebok brand because Dan didn't make the (U.S. Olympic) team?" Ropes posed.

Corporate image-maker Chajet says that's exactly what will happen. "In its commercials, Reebok has portrayed a win as being a great benefit, so you have to presume that a loss is something that's very harmful."

Rival Nike said Reebok's biggest mistake was molding an entire campaign around a risky assumption. "Assuming these two guys would make the Olympic team would be like us assuming that Michael Jordan will always make the last-second shot--and then building an entire campaign around that," said Dusty Kidd, a Nike spokesman. "They took a calculated risk and lost."

But Reebok executives insist that it isn't a complete loss--yet. Johnson is still very much in the race. And while Reebok is being coy about its future plans for the suddenly stalled campaign, it is clear that the company isn't about to junk it.

Reebok has multi-year contracts with both athletes. Each athlete could well participate in the 1996 Olympics.

"Do you realize how much speculation there will be about what Reebok will do next?" Ropes asked. "Many advertisers would kill to be in this position?"

And many would kill not to be.

Reebok's Venice-based ad agency Chiat/Day/Mojo declined to comment, referring calls back to Reebok.

Not everyone, however, believes that Reebok has fatally tripped over its own shoelaces.

"In advertising you have to take chances," said Marty Blackman, a New York City-based sports marketing consultant. "That's how you create excitement."

That's also how you create pandemonium. And pandemonium often translates into increased free publicity. "These guys will probably get more publicity for this than if they had both actually competed in the Olympics," said Katharine D. Paine, president of the Hampton, N.H., consulting firm Delahaye Group.

Her firm monitored 600 publications that wrote about Nike and Reebok between January and April of this year. While Nike was mentioned in 1,436 articles, rival Reebok was mentioned in 1,033. But with Reebok's recent advertising fiasco, she said, Reebok may garner more free publicity than Nike during the Olympic period.

One sports marketing expert suggested that Reebok could actually make a killing out of all this. "There is often a terrific sympathy factor for the favorite losing," said Max Muhleman, a Charlotte, N.C., sports marketing specialist. "Reebok could still create its own mini-decathlon between Dan and Dave. That certainly makes as much sense as the Bud Bowl."

Briefly . . .

Sega of America won't announce the winners of its $65-million ad business until Wednesday, but industry insiders say the San Francisco agency Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein will likely pick up a large chunk of it. . . . The Los Angeles agency Szenderski & Associates has been purchased by the Irvine ad firm Morrison Lee & Stevens for an undisclosed sum. . . . The Santa Monica ad shop Suissa Miller created a commercial for client Catalina Swimwear--featuring American-made bikinis worn at the Black Sea--which debuted on TV in the former Soviet Union last week. . . . American consumers are unable to identify a single product marketer as the most environmentally responsible, according to an Advertising Age survey.

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