Selling Sneakers... and Human Rights (1990)
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Selling Sneakers... and Human Rights (1990)

Paul Holmes

 

Cause-related marketing has become big business over the past few years. Most experts trace the boom back to 1983 and an American Express campaign that donate one cent from every AmEx card purchase to the Statue of Liberty restoration fund. More recent example include Johnson & Johnson's support of education of the subject -of domestic violence, or Scott Pape Company's "Learning Tools for Schools" promotion, or Dakin's campaign against violent toys.

For the most part, however, these cam­paigns have been linked to product sales—Scott Paper, for example, asks parents to col­lect proofs-of-purchase to be redeemed for equipment—or have had a clear ulterior motive—Dakin makes non-violent cuddly toys. Reebok's commitment to Human Rights stands apart from the majority of cause-related PR programs in both its depth and its unexploitative nature, to the extent that those associated with it believe it is part of a new and separate phenomenon.

"This is not a traditional cause-related marketing campaign," says Carol Cone, pres­ident of Boston PR agency Cone Communications, which worked with Reebok on the Human Rights Now tour. "It goes much deeper than that. It's not just about selling sneakers. It's about defining cor­porate values, identifying the core values of the company and then aligning those core values with those of the consumer." Cone even has a new name for what Reebok is doing. She calls it "social venture marketing."

In 1988, Amnesty International's execu­tive director John Healy came to Reebok to suggest a company-sponsored tour of rock stars to promote the organization's human rights agenda. "They came to use because they thought we were the only company they could relate to," said Reebok's then­ president and chief operating officer C. Joseph LaBonte.

Reebok had been considering a rock sponsorship advertising campaign, but discus­sions with Amnesty made it clear that adver­tising would be counter-productive and credibility damaging. Instead, the company decid­ed simply to underwrite the tour, a seven-week, five-continent, $22 million event fea­turing such celebrities as Sting, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen and Tracy Chapman.

Going in, the company realized it was likely to get stuck with a $10 million tab (the difference between the costs and the receipts) but compared to the millions Coke and Pepsi were paying to get Madonna and Michael Jackson that seemed almost a bargain.

There were those within Amnesty who opposed the tour, because they feared that Reebok would commercialize it. LaBonte realized, he says, that the show "couldn't be an advertising vehicle" and apparently turned down suggestions from Reebok's ad agency at the time, Chiat/Day, for campaigns promoting the tour, and even "human rights" tags placed directly on product. He did, however, hire Cone to handle PR, and gave the go-ahead for a more subtle campaign—the ill-fated "Reeboks Let U.B.U."—linking human rights and freedom of personal expression.

The Human Rights tour was expensive and "it was a very long way away from selling sneakers," admits Reebok's vice-president corporate communications Kenneth Lightcap, who joined the company in 1989.

"If we had commercialized the Hun Rights Now tour overtly, people simply would not have accepted it, or us. There would have been a backlash. There would have been no opportunity for us to take it forward. But for us this was always a long-term commitment. We were looking at a three- to five-year program, and we believed the pay­off would come down the road."

The long-term future of the program appeared threatened just a year later, howev­er, when Reebok founder and chairman Paul Fireman took back day-to-day control of the company from LaBonte. Although the com­pany appeared to be performing well, with profits up 28% in 1989 and sales reaching $1.8 billion, Reebok was losing market share to arch-rival Nike, which passed the Massachusetts-based company in mid-1988, riding on the back of a successful marketing campaign featuring athlete celebrities such as Michael Jordan that was more obviously aligned with the target audience.

Critics, including some very vocal retail­ers, suggested that Reebok's softer, lifestyle marketing approach was failing, that even those majority of sneaker-buyers who were not engaged in sporting activities were aspiring to emulate Jordan and his fellow Nike celebrities.

Reebok USA president Frank O'Connell resigned, as did marketing chief Mark Goldston. Chiat/Day—which had fol­lowed up the U.B.U. failure with the notorious bungee­-rope ad—was dismissed and replaced by Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulos.

Reebok's long-term com­mitment to human rights survived the transition, how­ever. Indeed, LaBonte remains on the company's human rights board, which is chaired by Paul Fireman.

"The whole program was started by Paul Fireman," says Ken Lightcap. "His per­sonal commitment to this issue is what drove the whole campaign. He saw the oppor tunity. As far as the human rights program is concerned, we are on track and we will begin a whole new phase this fall."

The Reebok Foundation had already fol­lowed up the tour by creating the world's first human rights award for young activists. In 1988 and 1989, the Foundation awarded $100,000 to young people under the age of 30 who have made significant contributions to the advancement of human rights. Recipients to date have included two young South Africans (one white, one black), and a survivor of the Cambodian genocide living in the United States and campaigning to edu­cate American children about the horrors of war faced by young people all over the world.

Reebok was also active in supporting the recent visit of Nelson Mandela to the United States (and Cone handled PR for the Boston leg of his national tour) and attended a meeting between Mandela and Boston business leaders.To coincide with the visit, Paul Fireman presented a three-year $375,000 grant to the TransAfrica Forum, a Washington think-tank on U.S. policy in Africa.

The next phase of the campaign will bring the mes­sage closer to home for Reebok's target audience of young consumers. In the fall, Reebok will take its human rights message into Boston high schools, which will teach a unit on human rights to students aged 14 to 18. The company will then sponsor a contest, inviting students to submit reports on human rights issues.

"What we have done so far is lay the groundwork, establish Reebok as a company committed to the human rights issue and not simply interested in finding a fashionable way to pro­mote itself," Lightcap explains. "I think we have achieved that, so now our message in schools is consis­tent with everything else we have done. That makes it all the more credible."

Nevertheless, doubts remain. Critics of the cam­paign claim that while all this activity may make the company feel good and endear it to those actively involved in promoting human rights, it is largely irrelevant to con­sumers, who are more interested in the quality of the product and the endorsement of athletes than they are in this kind of soft, lifestyle promotion.

Even Carol Cone admits there is a risk involved, but she believes it will pay off. "The amazing thing about Paul Fireman is that he has great gut instincts," she says. "He is not the kind of ceo who has to look at eigh­teen feet of computer studies before he makes up his mind on something, and when the opportunity to get involved with this issue came up he knew right away it was the right thing to do, both moral­ly and in terms of marketing."

Cone is so impressed with Reebok's thinking that her agency has set up a social venture marketing unit, which gave its time free to promote the Mandela visit and has also worked with Coors, Farm Aid and Earth's

Best Baby Food (an organic baby food.) Cone is convinced that Reebok's success will be more evident a year from now, and that social venture marketing will become a major growth area for public relations agencies.

Those who work directly with Reebok are similarly convinced. Cone vp Linda Lewi says she thinks companies that don't ally themselves with the values of their cus­tomers are the one's taking the risk.

"What Reebok is doing is really no differ­ent from what is being done by companies trying to align themselves with environmen­tal groups," she says. "The only difference is in the level of commitment. Reebok has cho­sen not to take ads but to actually do some­thing about the problem. But it's all part of the same trend. Baby boomers have a strong sense of what is right, and they want compa­nies' to appeal to that sense of what is right.
"Reebok recently sponsored an Academy Awards party in Hollywood at which [black actress] Alfre Woodard said she felt Reebok was the first 21st century company. I think that says it all. Reebok is looking forward to the 21st century, and it is in touch with the aspirations and the sen­sitivities of consumers who will make up the market in the 21st century."

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