Launching the Adidas 1

Athletic apparel companies intensely compete for each customer. in fact, in some ways, their behavior is much like that of their most intense users, the hard-core runners. Many serious runners are slow to change in terms of their routines, training, diet, and equipment. Once they have found a system that works, they stick with it. It becomes their ritual, their passion. They have bought the same model and brand of shoes for years, and they are upset if that model is ever phased out. Other serious runners always look for an edge, even a micro-edge. They are willing to try any change as long as it promises to offer a fraction of a second.

The same goes for the companies such as Adidas, New Balance, and Nike, companies that make the shoes and clothing worn by these hard-core users. These companies simultaneously act like both types of runner. Each company has its core strengths in terms of techno­logy and loyal following. Change here is not an option. At the same time, each vies for a micro-edge relative to its competitors, and each looks to innovation to steal a fraction of market share. So far, each company has independently worked on similar innovation, so not one of them in recent times has put much distance between its own prod­ucts and those of the competition. All are racing forward, picking up speed rather than tiring, not exactly sure where they are headed but working to stay ahead.

Now Adidas has a revolutionary product—not a micro-edge improvement, but one that promises a substantial lead in the race. The accomplishments of the Adidas 1 have always been a dream in the footwear industry, a fantasy idea on every shoemaker’s wish list, because each individual has not just different-size feet, but different cushioning needs. Adjustable cushioning has been discussed in the industry for years, and the solution from Adidas is far superior even to what most have dreamed about. Even more importantly, it is the first of a new generation of products, the first of a new realm of inquiry and innovation.

The Adidas 1 was developed in secrecy in the German company’s U. S. headquarters in Portland, Oregon. The Adidas 1 is an intelligent shoe, with a 20-megahertz computer embedded in the arch and linked to a sensor in the heel cushion. Taking up to 20,000 readings every second, the computer-powered shoe constantly measures the impact on the sole. It re-tensions a tiny screw – and cable-system to optimize the shoe’s cushioning not only to the runner’s size and stride but also to the runner’s current speed and terrain, whether concrete or grass. The shoe adjusts itself every fourth step, and all the shifts occur mid-stride so that the runner doesn’t feel them and so that the shoe conserves power, extending battery life. If the terrain is too soft, a motor adjusts the cushion so that it is less springy when the runner steps down. If it is too hard, it allows the cushion to expand.

stephen Pierpoint heads up the marketing of the Adidas 1 in Germany. He grew up a fanatic of consumerism and was keenly brand-oriented at an early age. He studied business at Sheffield University in his home country of England, concentrating primarily on marketing. He took advantage of the range of courses the univer­sity offered to not only expand his business knowledge but also to further his interest in the human side of marketing, because he espe­cially enjoyed the creativity of advertising appeal. Both when growing up and later at the university, much of his interest centered around sports, so his marketing role at Adidas was a realization of a lifelong dream.

As of autumn 2004, Pierpoint was in the midst of planning for the March 2005 product launch of the Adidas 1. There is much to be planned, especially because the impact of this launch supersedes that of the product. It is a launch that affects the essence of the Adidas brand worldwide. Central to every product launch is the identifica­tion of target consumers. For the Adidas 1, Pierpoint talks about two broad consumer segments. one segment is simply those who would go out and buy the product. These are the early adopters, serious runners who look for new technologies to give them an edge. Adidas wants to make sure these early adopters are fully satisfied by the experience of using the shoes—so satisfied that they will never go back to any old-generation running shoes. So Adidas is being careful in its distribution, deciding not just which countries in which to launch the 1, but which stores in which countries, and how much inventory should go to each of these stores. The company wants to be sure to put the product in front of the right people first. For every­thing changes from this point forward.

The other segment is the brand audience, the listeners who will be influenced by the message of the product itself. This landmark prod­uct not only gives Adidas the ability to change the perception of its whole brand, but it also forces a change in perception, because this product puts Adidas at the forefront of innovation in the athletic apparel industry. The challenge for many product marketers is to think of ways to make the product as new and exciting as possible. The mar­keting challenge for Pierpoint is probably harder, because his market­ing efforts must live up to the true greatness of this very new product.

To convey the story of this new shoe, one focus is how it will appear at the retailer. it is not a typical shoe, so use of the typical packaging would fail to communicate content differences. Another initiative is to write a user manual for the shoe. To those of us who are not writing that user manual, the task appears straightforward. However, this is the first shoe that comes with an instruction manual, so there is no template to follow. Remember how bad the first com­puter manuals were? Adidas knows that even the simple task of an instruction manual can have a major impact on the image of the whole company, so the manuals are being crafted as carefully as the shoe was designed. One of the reasons why Adidas launched the pub­licity more than six months before the product was released was to get the idea out there so that it could work with focus groups that were already aware of the product and could read the opinions in chat rooms and on Web sites. Pierpoint wanted to see the types of words used by consumers, to identify any fears that exist so that his team could properly address them. How consumers reacted to the shoe’s announcement gives his marketing team a sort of test market to use so that the real product launch goes smoothly.

Pierpoint is not stopping at launch; the planning continues. Adidas has marketing plans beyond the launch for the Adidas 1 and for other shoes. it is already planning the next level of intelligence, laying out a map of how it intends to strategically evolve the product and its extensions.