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The Third Pair of Sneakers

“We set our sights on a destination beyond the distant horizon, and then we make the road by walking.” — Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, authors In the early 1980s, Paul Fireman was seeking a creative outlet when he ran into Angel Martinez, the owner of two West Coast running-shoe stores.

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“We set our sights on a destination beyond the distant horizon, and then we make the road by walking.” — Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, authors

In the early 1980s, Paul Fireman was seeking a creative outlet when he ran into Angel Martinez, the owner of two West Coast running-shoe stores.

The two struck up a conversation about their mutually shared dreams and came upon an interesting piece of data: On average, women owned eight times more shoes than men, but only one-fifth as many sneakers. Together, Fireman and Martinez considered creating sneakers specifically designed for women.

They licensed their new corporate name from Reebok, a British company named for a South African antelope, and took off running. Due to increased gender equality in sports and a healthy fitness trend among women, the wind of the marketplace was at their backs. Little did they know that Reebok would become an international giant in the athletic footwear industry by 1986.

Fireman and Martinez built Reebok U.S. on a marketing strategy that Martinez called “the third pair of sneakers.” The strategy was based on a scenario that typically played out at the point of purchase in a store’s footwear department.

“The first brand of sneakers a woman would ask for was Nike,” Martinez explains. “Nike advertised the most and had the best-known brand name by far. We couldn’t compete with their advertising budget, so we just let their budget get people in the store.

“The second brand shown to a customer was one recommended by salesperson. That was either the brand with the highest margin, or the one that the sales manager was pushing because it was overstocked. At first, our job was to figure out how to be the third brand shown to customers and how to then entice them to choose Reebok.”

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“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” — Albert Einstein

Reebok designed a shoe specifically for a woman’s foot. It fit better than competitors’ sneakers, which were often designed to fit either gender. Reebok also used supple leather that felt immediately comfortable to a customer sampling the shoe in a store.

The strategy proved a great success. Reebok grew so rapidly in the mid-1980s that the company’s largest problem was shipping sneakers to dealers before they sold out again!

Reebok’s guerilla strategy introduces three important lessons for people building a personal brand and sustaining a successful career.

1. Make Lemonade

“We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves to be like other people.” — Arthur Schopenhauer, philosopher

Reebok used Nike’s advertising to pull customers into the stores; it capitalized on Nike’s strength to serve its brand.

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As president of PepsiCo, John Sculley battled a behemoth: the American icon known as the 6.5-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola. In the 1970s, people still served Coke to guests in that legendary bottle. When they served Pepsi, they poured it into a glass — and left the bottle behind in the kitchen.

Sculley uncovered some interesting data suggesting that a household consumed as much soda as it could carry home from the grocery store. That finding led to a simple invention: liter and two-liter bottles of Pepsi. Coke was forced to copy, and the icon of the 6.5-ounce bottle faded.

You are not always going to be the first, the biggest, or even the best overall. That does not mean you cannot use a competitor’s prominence to your benefit (for example, Avis advertises its second-place standing and says, “We try harder.”), and it does not mean you cannot simply be yourself. In your career, it is important to take positions that allow you to accentuate your strengths, rather than dwell on your weaknesses — to use your competitors to improve your own position any way possible.

2. Walk in Their Reeboks

“If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first hour sharpening the ax.” — Abraham Lincoln

Reebok invested in financial incentives for retailers and in a supple leather sneaker designed for a specific population. This resulted in a good fitting sneaker for the customer and a positive impression of the retailer.

Proctor & Gamble was renowned in the early 1980s for its brand-management strategy, but when scanner data gave supermarket retailers increased information and bilateral market power, P&G quickly changed its approach. It understood that a supermarket’s internal buyers didn’t care about profitability on P&G products alone. The buyers cared about the success of their departments — for example, they cared about the success of laundry detergents, not the success of Tide.

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Proctor & Gamble became the acknowledged leaders in what was called “category management.” The company spent millions of dollars collecting information on entire product categories so that its sales force could help retailers increase profitability in categories dominated by P&G products.

“Seek first to understand and then to be understood” is a lesson from Stephen Covey’s writings that resonates emotionally. People care about their problems, and your job as a provider of a product or a service is to understand those problems intimately — and to focus on them before your own.

3. Listen With Your Eyes

“The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight, but has no vision.” — Helen Keller

Reebok was bold enough to ask, “Why shouldn’t women have sneakers designed specifically for them?”

Today, people are creating careers that don’t fit conventional categories, just as Reebok reinvented its product category nearly 20 years ago. Around my house, the question of what I do for a living is a standing joke. Well, I write, consult to large companies, start small businesses, mentor startups, and give speeches. I prefer “educational entrepreneur” as a job title. And I’m not unique — I have several friends with patchwork careers just like mine: radio DJ and legal mediator, for example.

Many of us have become sensitive to our own personal rhythms and to the world around us. We combine a market opportunity over there with skills we have over here — combining what we see with our authentic inner gifts. We let our eyes do the walking, and our hearts do the talking.

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“Success means we go to sleep at night knowing that our talents and abilities were used in a way that served others.” — Marianne Williamson, author and lecturer

For more on Reebok, see the ML2 E-Newsletter #29, March 1997 story on former Reebok president Joe Labonté in “The Cowboy and the Astronaut.”

Copyright © 2000 Dr. Mark S. Albion. All rights reserved.

by Mark Albion

Read more columns by Mark Albion.