Friday, April 15, 2011

Why the Reebok-CrossFit Partnership Ain't Such a Bad Thing

When a new partnership between CrossFit and Reebok was announced last November, it wasn't at all clear how this would affect the global CrossFit community -- and as a result, plenty of hand-wringing ensued. After all, there's always reason to be wary of big corporate interests, right?

But you know what? Perhaps we're still in the honeymoon phase, but so far, so good.

Over the past few months, we've gotten a (slightly) better sense of how Reebok sees its role in the CrossFit world. The sportswear company began sponsoring elite CrossFit athletes like Graham Holmberg, and is now ponying up as the primary sponsor of the 2011 Games themselves. And it's done so without intruding or distracting from the CrossFit experience (other than drawing attention to its weird-looking shoes in CrossFit Games videos).

To date, concerns about the company watering down the CrossFit experience appear to have been unfounded. The affiliate community is as robust and independent as ever -- and no one from Reebok or CrossFit HQ is pushing those atrocious-looking Zigs down our throats. (Good thing, too: A shoe that actually ENCOURAGES heel-striking to "send a wave of help propel the athlete forward with each step" sounds like a hot mess.)

In addition, some gym owners initially expressed fears that the company would launch a fleet of Reebok-branded CrossFit boxes to compete with independent affiliates -- but other than the one CrossFit gym run by Reebok for its employees, there haven't been any signs that the company plans to muscle in on affiliate owners' turf.

If anything, Reebok has come across as being extremely deferential to the CrossFit community's expertise. Indeed, as Kate "Killer" Rawlings pointed out in a recent blog post on SICFIT, the company has been actively engaging CrossFit athletes to help guide the direction of the partnership:
Over the last several months Reebok has had several CrossFit athletes visit their box, Reebok CrossFit One, help lead a class, participate and more importantly, provide their input on the community at large, affiliate relationships, training programs, trends, equipment, shoes, sports bras. You name it.
Reebok is genuinely working to support and grow the community, and they’re doing it the right way, from the ground up. I think the best part of the Reebok CrossFit relationship is that it is being steered by Reebok, but navigated by their athletes.
From my vantage point, it looks like Reebok's philosophy is to hitch its wagon to CrossFit -- not to drive the car.

But why, you ask, would a big-ass company -- a subsidiary of an even bigger-ass company -- be willing to take the back seat to a (relatively) small, loosely-organized group of sweaty athletes and small business owners?

My answer (and my take on Reebok's RealFlex shoes) -- after the jump.

Reebok first took off in the early 1980s with its Freestyle aerobics shoe for women, and surged again a decade later with its gimmicky inflatable Pumps. But for a couple of decades now, Reebok's been, well...aimless. From a market share angle, it's always had to play second or third fiddle behind Nike -- a company that's built its brand through consistent, strong and resonant marketing. In contrast, Reebok's never really broken through.

(A quick example: Everyone's familiar with "Just Do It," but Reebok's ever-changing slogans never registered with consumers. Anyone remember Reebok's "I Am What I Am" campaign? Me neither.)

In 2006, Adidas purchased Reebok for $3.8 billion, with an eye towards teaming up to take on Nike. But in the years since the Reebok acquisition, both companies have actually lost market share in the United States. To add insult to injury, in October of last year, the NFL ditched Reebok -- after 10 years together -- as the league's exclusive on-field apparel provider. It signed with Nike instead.

Reebok hasn't been at the top of its game for a long time. Looking to turn things around after years of dodgy, unfocused, all-over-the-place marketing, the company has now directed its gaze at a few core segments of the marketplace, including "women’s fitness, where [Reebok] has deep roots," and "men’s fitness and training, where it lags badly but must compete to be a credible athletic footwear brand."

And that's where CrossFit comes in.

Reebok has a lot to gain from its partnership with "the sport of fitness." CrossFit appeals to both men and women, and is one of the fastest-growing movements the industry has ever seen. It has spread virally in less than a decade, amplified by robust communities that passionately engage each other across the globe about all aspects of health, fitness, and the CrossFit lifestyle. Regardless of whether you think CrossFit is a cult or not, its exponential growth is very real, and the sport commands an intensely devoted following -- and one with immense buying power.

But it's not like Reebok can barge in and take over CrossFit and its culture without inflicting serious damage. After all, CrossFit is a grass-roots, open-source approach that thrives precisely because everyone gets to do their own thing. Gym owners and athletes can innovate and improvise -- and it is their creative contributions that drive the development of the sport.

Reebok isn't stupid. It's savvy enough to know not to mess with a good thing. To corporatize the hell out of CrossFit would have meant killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Instead, Reebok recognizes that by just hanging back a little, it stands to reap plenty of benefits, including:
  • Exposure to and affiliation with an increasingly popular brand with a loyal following;
  • A positive halo effect from its association with CrossFit -- thereby establishing the company's bona fides among the core fitness demographic that it's chasing;
  • A huge pool of athletes ready and willing to offer direction, feedback and market testing; and
  • Immediate access to highly-localized CrossFit communities and sub-communities -- each with its own ground-level entrepreneurs, marketers, mavens and proselytizers who can act as front-line brand ambassadors for Reebok.
The success of Reebok's strategy, of course, depends on how well its products are received by the CrossFit community at large. And there's the rub: No matter how much money Reebok throws into the partnership with CrossFit HQ, and no matter how much it wants to jump onto the CrossFit gravy train, it needs to offer stuff that CrossFitters want to wear and use.

Can it do so?

One of the first tests will be the CrossFit community's response to the Reebok RealFlex shoes, which were released just a couple of days ago. The company appears to have poured a boatload of money into marketing this line of footwear directly at the CrossFitting/barefoot running crowd. Promotional materials were blasted out to barefoot running enthusiasts, and elite CrossFitters Graham Holmberg and Rebecca Voigt are featured in a (weirdly creepy) commercial for the product:

But are these shoes any good?

Personally, I'm skeptical. Granted, I've not tried a pair, but from what I've seen, I share the concerns that Justin Owings outlined in this recent post on Birthday Shoes. Most problematic are the 76 "sensor pods" -- with or without cute little screaming faces on 'em. They run counter to the RealFlex's stated mission to allow for natural, biomechanically-correct running. Padding the heel with rows of rubber nubs may allow for a more flexible shoe, but it robs the wearer of ground-feel and encourages heel-striking and bad running form. Plus, I'm dubious of the rubbery nubs' ability to lend sufficient stability during WODs that incorporate O-lifting movements.

I'm sure some critics will point to these flaws as further evidence that Reebok's all wrong for CrossFit, and that gimmicky shoes only serve to dilute CrossFit's brand and reputation. (Of course, Exhibit "A" will still be the ridiculously awful Reebok EasyFit "toning" shoes.)

But I disagree. I think the CrossFit community has the potential to gain much from its association with Reebok. 

Maybe I'm being unrealistically Pollyanna-ish, but I believe CrossFit has a unique opportunity right now to exert its influence on a sportswear company with global influence. Shoes like the RealFlex may not meet our exacting standards for an all-around CrossFitting shoe, but our feedback will carry weight. Reebok is -- now more than ever -- receptive to what CrossFitters have to say. The reason is simple: It wants to make stuff that we will want to buy.

According to one Reebok employee, the company is working on
a full line of footwear for CrossFitters, made by CrossFitters, and you will all see these in the months to come. We have listened to the community and the athletes we have on board with us to ensure that what we are putting out to market is real and authentic!
Does this mean we're going to convince Reebok's going to dump the EasyTone line? Or eliminate the distinctive zigzags and nubs from their more garish offerings? Of course not. There are plenty of others (including some CrossFitters) who love these shoes, and Reebok would be stupid not to fill the demand in the marketplace.

But in our little corner of the world, it makes total sense that Reebok's looking to the CrossFit community to beta-test its products and shape the future of the partnership. If we can get to a place where Reebok is pumping out precisely the type of sportswear and equipment we all want to buy, wear, use, and recommend to others, this relationship is going to be a win-win.

And if we don't ever get there? Well...then we'll just chalk it up as a learning experience.