Jump First, Think Fast – Development of the Reebok Pump Sneaker

This content relates to : NEW PRODUCT & SERVICE DEVELOPMENT

HIGHLIGHTS

If you are going up against a powerful market leader, you better be bold.

Break all the normal new product development process rules.

Do things others would never do to break through. 

Frank O’Connell

Former President, Reebok Brands

Author, Jump First, Think Fast

In May 2021, thirty years after its initial introduction, Reebok relaunched The Pump, the iconic basketball sneaker that had given new life to the brand back then. The relaunched version included enhancements that mimicked the innovation mindset that had characterized the initial launch. In the late 1980s, driven by Nike Air Jordan’s competitive pressure, Reebok needed to get back in the game. In 1988 when I joined Reebok as President of Reebok Brands, it was losing share to Nike, had no new products in the pipeline, a 2-3 year development cycle and no formal product development process. Stores were over inventoried, advertising 20% off Reebok. To keep the brand alive they ran a famous $18M ad campaign “Reeboks Let U.B.U.,” with no new products to show. We learned we were in the lifestyle entertainment business, where sneaker designs like Air Jordon were driven heavily by technology. Less than 30% of athletic sneakers ever see competition or fitness; they are worn as fashion statements. Reebok had good designers but they had lost bold innovation; they had become stylists refining existing design. If you stood back from the shelf in a footwear store you could see Reebok Sneakers were progressively looking more and more alike. We needed functional technology that was visual and would force unique designs.

While attending an athletic footwear show, Paul Fireman, Chairman and CEO asked me to look at an outside developer’s concept, with a series of tubes and fluids surrounding the foot to form a customized fit. It was complex and costly but stimulated my thinking. I talked to the development team which had attempted similar concepts before. But we needed outside technology to come up with lightweight material that could provide the support of a 200 pound basketball player down from a jump. I read a Business Week article which identified the 10 most innovative technology groups in the U.S.; Design Continuum was in Boston and I contacted them with a product development document I had written that described the design criteria we were seeking. They followed an internal design-thinking process long before this approach was common. Our goal was to design a breakthrough athletic shoe to rival Nike’s Air Jordan.

Preventing ankle injury was important especially in basketball shoes because of players constantly jumping and hitting the court often at an angle. From prior medical work, Design Continuum had designed an air bladder using blood-pressure cuffs technology that wrapped around the foot. In a couple of weeks they showed us an inflatable air bladder concept with a pump in the tongue in the shape of a basketball. I sent them with our development team to Korea to figure out how to integrate the bladder technology into an athletic shoe. We contracted with a medical device company in Springfield Massachusetts which could sonically weld the bladder. It was a big risk with a single source of the bladder from a small company since we needed millions of units. They delivered flawlessly. The Pump was comfortable; it adjusted to everyone’s exact unique foot shape and size, had seamless compression fabric, extra support to protect the ankle, and the basketball pump in the tongue became an iconic design feature.

I formed a swat team reporting directly to me to cut the development time from 18 to 6 months. The team had a member from each of the critical areas: design, development, sourcing, manufacturing, sales, and marketing. The lead designer was given the responsibility to make all design decisions without going to a committee cutting through the bureaucracy. Plus putting all of the functional areas together at the start prevented lengthy serial handoffs. I also made most of the decisions in the case of disagreements.

I charged the advertising agency, Chiat Day, to come up with a campaign that was bolder than the pump concept and a campaign that their other clients would never run. Also, it should not take place on the basketball court as Nike owns the court. We need to create our own playing field where we can win. I had each of my executives work with the Chiat Day’s various offices; I worked with the San Francisco office. We came up with various ideas such as Running with the Bulls in Spain. We came up with two bungie-jumpers diving off the 180 feet Deception Pass bridge in Oregon. The jumper wearing the Reebok Pumps pops back up while the other jumper wearing Nike’s apparently heads for a swim. NBC refused to run the ad which was just the awareness and controversy I was hoping for. Everyone ran to the other networks to see the commercial. The commercial ran only 8 times but the free publicity and awareness of the Pump generated millions of dollars in free publicity. It became famous as one of the greatest Footwear Commercials of all time. You can see it on the internet. Jump First, Think Fast.

The Pump was targeted initially at basketball players but later the larger audience of young urban trend setters, and then the mass footwear market. It was introduced in 1989 at $170 and generated $1B in revenue propelling Reebok ahead of Nike.

Author:

Frank O’Connell

Former President, Reebok Brands

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