How James Harden & Kanye West Helped Adidas Boss Mark King Nab Person of the Year

When Mark King starred in an April 2012 episode of the reality series “Undercover Boss,” the then-CEO of TaylorMade Golf, an Adidas-owned brand, learned firsthand how to re-engage employees and make the entire operation run better.

It’s a management lesson that’s worked wonders for King, and something he adheres to today as the head of Adidas North America, a position he assumed in 2014.

At the time of his appointment, Adidas had lost its mojo in the U.S., focusing too much on soccer players and creating sneakers that appealed more to European tastes. King quickly put a plan in place that pooled global resources to create what he calls “breakthrough product innovations” and consistent marketing campaigns around U.S. sports. He encouraged his team to focus more heavily on the running and basketball categories, as well as stylish lifestyle looks.

“We asked how we could take the strength of the brand, the strength of the resources we have as a global company and deploy those more effectively here in the U.S.,” King said. “We’ve come together as a company to compete in America. That’s first. The second thing is that the products have been fantastic, and they’re continuing to get better.”

Mark King
The head of Adidas North America focused on product innovations and consistent marketing to revive the brand in the U.S.
CREDIT: Jon Duenas

Indeed, they have. The company has produced one hit shoe — and collab — after another. They include its Ultra Boost and NMD products and hot sellouts from franchises such as the Superstar, Stan Smith and Yeezy Boost. Adidas has also flexed its muscle on the performance side with signature shoes from NBA star James Harden and soccer great Leo Messi.

There’s no question that hot product was key to Adidas last month reclaiming the No. 2 position in the athletic space in the U.S., after losing it to Under Armour in 2014, according to industry experts.

“Mark is a terrific leader because he encourages his team to figure out what the U.S. kid wants and make it for them,” said Matt Powell, sports industry analyst for The NPD Group Inc.

Under King, the athletic giant also began to highlight its impressive roster of pro athletes, which includes the NFL’s Aaron Rodgers and Von Miller, the NBA’s Damian Lillard, the NHL’s Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, and MLB’s Kris Bryant. Perhaps most important, though, is Harden.

The Houston Rockets shooting guard, who signed a 13-year, $200 million deal with Adidas in 2015, was the centerpiece in one of its recent marketing spots, starring in the “Creators Never Follow” film that encouraged athletes and fans to define their own path.

Adidas debuted Harden’s first signature shoe, called Harden Vol. 1, last week at Foot Locker, with more versions to be released during the NBA season.

For their part, athletes have embraced the recharged culture.

“Adidas believed in me from the very start of my career,” said Chicago Cubs star Bryant, the 2016 National League MVP. “Since then, they continue to support me and create products and footwear in particular that keep me comfortable, look different than anything across the league and help me play at the highest level.”

King, the mastermind behind the strategy overhaul, is reluctant to take the credit, instead deflecting it to his Portland, Ore., staff.

Analysts, however, see it otherwise. “Mark came in at a low point for Adidas USA,” said Powell. “He built a terrific team and focused them on one mission: to fix the U.S. business. And he did that.”

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