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Risking Reebok

Micky Pant, Chief Marketing Officer of Reebok International, was recently at HBS at the invitation of the Marketing Club to give a talk on the “Risks and Rewards of Brand Marketing.” The Harbus had the opportunity to speak with Pant while he was on campus and discovered the inside (and very amazing) story behind Reebok’s last major marketing campaign, their most successful one to date. To enable a fuller appreciation of the complexity and importance of the decisions that had to be made during this campaign, we thought we would take you behind the scenes for an insider’s look with none other than Micky Pant, Chief Marketing Officer of Reebok International.

Pant looked doubtfully at the video cassette lying on the table in front of him. He had just finished reviewing the four minute long film on that cassette for the nth time and he still could not make up his mind.

The cassette had been sent to him by Rossen Ferber, a person Pant had never heard of until that week. In fact, nobody had. Ferber was an unemployed and unknown youth who, by his own admission, had “tried working in an office and not liked it.” In fact, he had disliked it so much that he had begun to dream about a man who went around the office, catching employees in the act of committing common, yet trivial offences, of the type which occur in every workplace – such as leaving a copier without paper or playing video games during work hours. This imaginary man would then attempt to teach the office worker not to commit the offence in the future.

It was an unusual dream, made even more fantastic by the fact that the individual disciplining office workers to have better work habits was a 6 ft 2, 250 pound hulk, who stalked the halls of an otherwise normal office in full-blown football regalia and black war paint and whose subtle method of instituting behavior modification consisted of body tackling the offending entity and screaming in his ear while sitting on his chest.

Ferber even had a name for his dream guy – he called him Terry Tate, the Office Linebacker – and he had found his dreams so hilarious that he had gone out and spent his own money translating Terry from dream to reality by making a four minute film on his antics. And now Ferber wanted to know if Pant wished to use the Linebacker to sell sneakers.

Pant loved the Linebacker tape. He agreed with Ferber that the Linebacker was hilarious in the extreme. However, it didn’t take a genius to see there were, to put it mildly, a few problems with viewing Terry Tate as the best thing to happen to Reebok since Allen Iverson and Andy Roddick.

First, Pant could not perceive the faintest connection between selling sneakers and an Office Linebacker who had dedicated his life to saving the office copier from misuse by an unthinking office-going public. Nobody could blame him here. Pepsi and Anheuser Busch, who had been the first recipients of copies of the tape, had already expressed similar bemusement in their polite rejection letters.

Pant’s second and arguably more worrying issue was that the Linebacker could very well be perceived to be promoting work place violence. Reebok had already burnt its fingers once before with a similar borderline campaign when they had had to retract a television ad depicting bungee jumping because of the extremely negative reaction of the general public who had felt Reebok was promoting gratuitous risk-taking.

The list of negatives seemed endless. The concept was complex to communicate and would require relatively long ads to be effective. This, realized Pant, was actually a larger hurdle than some may realize, not only because the overall campaign expenditure would be larger than usual, but also because it would represent an unplanned budgetary expenditure which would likely have large unanticipated effects on the bottom line for the year.

Pant summed up the situation to himself – the Linebacker campaign could potentially, and at one fell swoop, spell disaster for not only that year’s performance, but also, for the long-term equity of the Reebok brand.

Pant also wondered what chances of success could a radical campaign have, one which had been dreamt up (quite literally at that), not by his own marketing team with its impressive qualifications and experience, but by a complete unknown who didn’t even like to work! Pant concluded that he could not justify going ahead with using Terry Tate as a platform for Reebok and put away the cassette.

But he personally still found the concept extremely funny. Sometime later he decided to use it as a skit at the end of an upcoming marketing conference, to provide some comic relief for the thousand Reebok employees who would be gathered there. According to the script of the skit, Pant would get up onto the stage to make the closing remarks when his cell phone would ring suddenly – a trivial case of unfortunate timing which most of us have become used to in the real world but a major and unforgivable breach of etiquette in the Office Linebacker’s fantasy world On this cue, Terry Tate, played by the formidable Lester Speight, would spring out from the side of the stage and gently pretend to tackle Pant, bringing him down on the stage. A rehearsal was held and everything went according to plan, with Pant ending up gently falling on the floor in the approved fashion.

On the day of the performance however, Pant climbed onto the stage, heard his cell phone go off and expected the enthusiastic Lester springing towards him. That was about as far as the original script was followed. The next thing Pant knew was that instead of lying on the floor in the approved and gentle fashion, he was spinning 360 degrees in the air, landing heavily and awkwardly on the hard stage, getting his jacket ripped in the process, and adding literal meaning to the phrase “sweating blood for your work”.

The enthusiastic Lester had apparently held himself back during the rehearsal, choosing to reserve, in the tradition of great performers worldwide, his strength and intensity for the night of the actual performance.

The audience burst out laughing.

Having been thrown, quite literally, for a toss and being laughed at by a thousand of your own employees is not something the ordinary person enjoys and quite naturally so. The response of the majority of people in a similar situation would have been to dismiss Terry Tate as a conceptually handicapped idea which had the further disadvantage that it was too complex to be understood easily.

But Pant observed something most would have missed – that not only was everybody rolling in laughter, “they wouldn’t stop laughing.” The sight of their dignified marketing chief being tackled and sent spinning by a hulking linebacker seemed to strike some deep-seated chord of humor with his employees. To them, the violence of the incident was overlooked and instead was appreciated as a hilarious clash of two incongruent worlds. Despite the seemingly obvious drawbacks, Pant decided the Linebacker was worth the risk. He was hilarious. He was cool. He was hip.

All the things Reebok needed and wanted to be.

As a result, Pant did propose that they use the Linebacker to sell sneakers, although he says he was quite sure that “the Chairman would fire me when he heard the whole thing.” Instead, Pant did not get fired.

Not even when he proposed that they introduce the Linebacker to the world, not in the dead of the season or in some small town in Idaho, but during the one event which is largely regarded as the Marketing Olympics – none other than the Super bowl.

Not to mention the cost of risking Reebok – the brand, the budget, the business – only about $4 million. This was the cost of the Terry Tate Super bowl ad which was more than Super bowl ads usually cost. The reason for this was that companies normally made 30 second long commercials for the Super bowl but the Terry Tate concept was a complex one and could not be communicated to the public in less than 60 seconds.
In addition, a full four minute film, similar to the original sent in by Ferber, was put on a specially created Terry Tate website so that, if people were interested, they could download and watch the full film from there.

On the night of the Super bowl, the whole Reebok team was so nervous, that many of them couldn’t bear to watch the reaction when the Reebok ad played and left their box for a walk outside instead. Much to their relief, the Terry Tate commercials turned out to be the most successful of all their campaigns till date. Immediately after the first airing, Pant got a call from Mike McCarthy of USA Today who was on the panel evaluating the Super bowl ads, congratulating him on the ad. It was voted the Funniest Commercial by Adage.com and received a Golden Lion at Cannes.

Many things could have gone wrong with this campaign. What went so amazingly right? The key, reflected Pant, was that the campaign was hysterically funny and immediately generated a massive “buzz” and hype around Terry Tate and by extension, Reebok. The website, where the longer Terry Tate films could be downloaded, became a beehive of activity, and at one point Reebok.com became the ninth largest content provider on the internet, streaming 1 terabyte of data per day and using 16 servers. Monday mornings at 11, says Pant, were the busiest when people reached their offices after the weekend.

In fact, the public was fascinated by Terry Tate and they wanted to know more about him. They laughed at his antics, fell in love with his idiosyncrasies and rooted for his office ethics. He was cool and by default, Reebok became cool too.

Pant further realized that it was essential to keep Terry in the news to maintain this buzz about the brand. So Terry (played by Lester Spleight) appeared on live television – springing out on unwary employees in the dark corridors of the ESPN office and tackling yet others at CNBC. On one occasion, he even opened the NYSE!

This relatively non-traditional campaign was more in keeping with the unusual nature of the Terry Tate persona and also made him more human for the general public. However, Reebok also engaged advertising in the traditional electronic media, when they invested $3 million in another
Terry Tate ad on the iconic show American Idol.

Ultimately, the Terry Tate campaign led to an entirely new method of marketing for Reebok. They realized that their investment in traditional mass media was creating awareness and interest about Terry Tate among the general public, which, in turn, was leading these consumers to seek further information about Terry on the website. Here, they could download the longer Terry Tate movies and order promotional items such as the Terry Tate bobble head doll. As a result, the consumers had a much more interactive and memorable experience with the Reebok brand. Moving forward, Reebok is factoring this strategy very strongly into their plans for next year, having challenged all of their brand managers to look for ways to replicate the success of Terry Tate by driving their target consumers to specific product websites where they can interact on a deeper level with the Reebok brand.

Another positive benefit of Terry Tate was that for the first time since the Sneaker Wars, Reebok took Nike head on. According to Pant, the success of the Terry Tate campaign infused new life into the marketing department inspiring them to do a spoof on Nike’s famous Streaker ad – in which (what else!) a streaker runs across a football field wearing only Nike shoes. In the spoof, Terry Tate, in familiar football outfit, tackles the streaker and lectures him on the evils of such undesirable habits, in his trademark grandma-meets-greco-roman wrestler method.

To sum up, the Terry Tate campaign was not just risky, but had the potential to put the entire Reebok brand at risk. Many marketers would have fallen into the trap of rejecting the campaign because it did not sound logically feasible and generally disregarded the tenets of traditional marketing. But as Pant points out, a good marketer is one who is always open to new ideas, no matter where they come from. Furthermore, in addition to recognizing a novel idea, a good marketer must have the courage to pursue a new approach without fear of shareholder, media or special interest group reaction.

The result in this case was that thanks to Pant’s foresight, what was considered by many to be an overwhelming risk, turned out to be the biggest brand enhancer for Reebok in decades. Reebok became hip, trendy and cool, attacked Nike head on and discovered a new paradigm in marketing.

But the best part for Pant?

That would probably be when the Reebok team was presented the Golden Lion at Cannes for the Terry Tate campaign by Dan Weiden of Weiden and Kennedy, the firm responsible for Nike’s advertising campaign, and who had once said “winning a silver means losing the gold”.

That, says Pant, with a twinkle in his eye, “was fun.”

November 10, 2003
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