I didn’t know what to say. In the bowels of Reebok’s headquarters in Canton, Massachusetts, in a presentation room previously limited to retailers, I studied the company’s secret new shoe in all its knobby, alien glory. I ran my fingers over its protuberances, which jut out nearly an inch from its sole, like lugs on a giant truck tire. “Wow,” I managed, finally. It was shorthand for Yep, this is the most bizarre athletic shoe I’ve ever seen.
I could have said that to Bill McInnis, Reebok’s head of advanced innovation, and John Lynch and Paul Froio, the marketing execs charged with making the creation a hit. I could have told them that the ATV 19+, which Reebok bills as the first all-terrain athletic shoe, evokes a wide-wheeled off-road vehicle–but also a daredevil, an astronaut, even a clown. I could have called the shoe gloriously demented. No one would have flinched. They’re not only prepared for extreme reactions when the shoe launches in February; they’re counting on them. During the development process, testers either raved that prototypes were “cool and bold” or ripped them, calling the design “too crazy” and swearing they’d never wear them. “It was 100% cosmetic polarity,” says McInnis, as if this were an endorsement.
Launching a polarizing product is Reebok’s answer to an increasingly crowded marketplace, one that typically sees hundreds of new models each year. The strategy worked three years ago with ZigTech, a running shoe with thick strips of cartoonish zigzagging tread; it even harkens back to Reebok’s best-selling Pump. “Yes, it’s unnerving,” Froio says of the criticism, even ridicule, for an unconventional product. “However, we succeed when we do things radically different.”
Reebok could certainly use a hit. Since being acquired by Adidas for nearly $4 billion in 2006, the company has struggled to find its footing. Historically, some of Reebok’s most popular kicks had cost $40 or less. But recently, it has bet on high-end shoes selling for $100 or more. “Almost from the first day of the deal, Reebok went backward,” says Matt Powell, an analyst with SportsOneSource. At one point in the 1980s, Reebok was the top U.S. athletic shoemaker; it now ranks fifth, with 4% of the market–nearly half what it had in 2005.
The athletic space has come to resemble consumer electronics in its voracious appetite for product. Every year or so, consumers expect new models and technology, which puts pressure on the R&D departments. Zig and RealFlex, an ultralight shoe for the natural-running market, helped Reebok boost its share of the running category from 3% to 8% in 2011, but by last November the company had fallen back to 7%.
With ATV 19+, Reebok is aiming to create–and dominate–a new footwear category. The shoe’s origins, however, aren’t quite so grand: One day, a Reebok designer brought into the office a Reaction Ball, a six-sided, bulbous tool that baseball players and others use in practice because it bounces unpredictably. McInnis and his team were curious to see if they could create a shoe equivalent, figuring that unsteady footing might provide a beneficial challenge to serious athletes.
While they were unable to mimic the ball’s random action, the team discovered that the shoe they’d designed actually gave athletes more stability, particularly on uneven ground. The 19 walnut-size nodes work like the large-tread tires of an ATV digging through mud to find traction. “The nodes down the center are the ones you run on,” says McInnis. “The ones on the side function like training wheels. When you land on different terrain, you’re protected.”
Reebok is launching two other new shoes in early 2013: Zig Carbon builds on the ZigTech platform with a plate of springy carbon fiber along the length of the shoe, and DMX Sky, with rows of extra-cushiony air pods, targets the Nike Air Max market. But it’s the $140 ATV 19+ that will be the centerpiece of the suite–and of an ad campaign featuring UFC fighter Rampage Jackson. McInnis just hopes the performance benefits of ATV 19+ will be enough to win over converts. “If you make a crazy-looking shoe just to make a crazy-looking shoe, you deserve to be made fun of,” he says. “You have to have a story behind it. Because when you wear these shoes, someone is going to ask about them.” Or so Reebok hopes.