A few years back, I noticed a sneaker trend in Scotland and parts of Ireland where nationalists would hack off the Union Jack flag that sits inside the window box of their Reebok classics with a scalpel (or some other sharp apparatus). As an expatriated Brit who has little interest in politics back home these days, I found the bizarre ingenuity of it all kind of funny, but more interesting was the fact that people were prepared to try their hand at some Dr. Nick Riviera-esque surgery even if it meant potentially butchering their $70 purchase. There are similar kicks on the market, but classics just hit differently.
Reebok's new Authentic Brand Group owners can forever bank on selling (literal) classics such as the above, but more difficult is trying to figure out how to make the rest of the brand relevant once more.
adidas' buy-out of Reebok in 2005 was a watershed moment. At the time, Nike was so far ahead in the US that the German giant thought it could achieve parity by joining forces with the Boston-based Reebok and combining its resources together. Except, it didn't really pan out that way. Rather than a joint mission, this was a relationship that always felt lopsided, in a way that at times almost felt sinister.
In 2001, Reebok agreed to a 10-year deal with the NBA to outfit all 29 teams in uniforms. That deal barely reached the midway point. Instead, the Three Stripes took over the contract in 2006 (a year after its acquisition), effectively telling the world that it ruled the roost. In terms of Reebok's image, it was hardly a great look.
Building off its success in aerobics, Reebok had become the number one sports brand in the US by the late '80s and early '90s. It boasted brand ambassadors such as Shaquille O'Neal, and eventually, Allen Iverson, who signed a lifetime deal worth a mindboggling $200,000,000 in 2001. Across the pond, it was building up an impressive roster of footballers, including Thierry Henry, Andriy Shevchenko, Dennis Bergkamp, and the jewel in the crown, Manchester United wing king Ryan Giggs. But where did they all go? Gradually, adidas began squeezing Reebok down the route of fitness, while the Three Stripes focussed on team sports. Rather than cool basketball shoes and soccer cleats, it wasn't long before Reebok became known for atrocious CrossFit and UFC gear.
Reebok's collaboration game in recent years has been solid enough, if not unspectacular, especially compared to 2001 when it was cutting groundbreaking celebrity deals with the likes of Jay-Z. Esoteric Beatnik releases might resonate with sneakerheads, but it's a different story when it comes to the wider public Kendrick Lamar, Ariana Grande, and of course, Cardi B have all released signature shoes, as have designers such as Palace, Gosha Rubchinskiy, Vetements, and JJJJound. But while Lamar and Cardi might be huge names in their own right, they don't possess that same X-factor as a Travis Scott or Kanye West (JJJJound is no Virgil Abloh either) and are hamstrung by the fact they can only release reiterations of classics, unlike, say, if they signed with Nike. It's a tough nut to crack, as evidenced by the fact that Pharrell's shoes for adidas are often left sitting on shelves. West and style Midas A$AP Rocky have both been seen in Reeboks in recent years, but it's one thing wearing them on the street, another actually doing so on stage.
Reebok's new owners have a ton to chew on, but there's a lot to be excited about, too. The company returned to profitability in 2018 and was showing good signs of growth in 2019 — until the pandemic hit in early 2020. All momentum was halted, but the good news is that no brand was left unscathed and that Reebok’s investors can feel confident its pre-pandemic revival could be restored.
What should be in their minds, is that Reebok has struggled in recent years attempting to find an identity: is it a sport, fashion, or fitness brand? This trickled down into every aspect of the brand, which constantly communicated mixed messages. You could go on further about lack of social media strategy, D2C issues, numerous other things, but there's no point getting hung up on such things if there's no direction above.
Free from the shackles of adidas, it can finally settle on being what it wants to be. Not only that, but with ABG group shareholder O'Neal — a guy who genuinely cares about the brand — returning home and Kerby Jean-Raymond's product range still to hit stores, there is already plenty to be excited about. Clearly, Reebok has more potential than just classics.