Though now in its 60th year — and with global sales of roughly $2.2 billion in 2017 — Reebok still bears a remarkable resemblance to its early days. First, there is its wholehearted return to the world of fitness but also its laser focus on the customer.
In the 1980s and ’90s, under CEO Paul Fireman, Reebok operated with an aggressive entrepreneurial spirit and a near obsession with the consumer. Today, Reebok’s brand president, Matt O’Toole, is equally attuned to the needs and expectations of its fans.
When FN toured the company’s headquarters in April, O’Toole confessed that what keeps him up at night is worrying that the brand isn’t obsessed enough about the customer. “Do we know enough about them? Are the ideas, product stories that we’re bringing to the consumer really based on meaningful insight?” he said.
O’Toole, 56, joined the company in 2004 through Reebok’s acquisition of The Hockey Co., and he has helped to slowly mold its modern image as a fitness-first athletic brand.
In 2010, O’Toole, who was at the time chief marketing officer, helped to steer the brand into a deal with the then-little-known workout organization CrossFit. Other lucrative unions have materialized as well over the years, including sponsorships for Les Mills, the Ragnar Relay Series and UFC. And of course there is its star-studded ambassador roster featuring Ariana Grande, Future, Gigi Hadid, Gal Gadot and Lil Yachty, as well as design collaborators Pyer Moss and Victoria Beckham.
Though Reebok faces intense competition in the athletic market, O’Toole is confident that the company is on the right track. In the coming months, his team is prioritizing the U.S. market, which has underperformed for the brand in recent years.
“Reebok has such a great heritage but also deep meaning behind our delta symbol and ‘Be More Human’ tagline. And in markets where we’ve taken the time and told the story to the consumer, that’s where we’ve had the most success,” he said.
Here, O’Toole shares his goals for the label and how it could become a beacon to improve people’s lives.
How does Reebok today compare with when Paul Fireman was at the helm?
MO: “The spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship is still here. Another similarity, especially from the founding days, is our return to our fitness roots. The company burst onto the scene in the early ’80s with the advent of the whole group-fitness and aerobics movement. We’re trying to return to that maniacal focus on this consumer who is passionate about living a fit and healthy life. So those are the similarities. I think the difference is that over the years, Paul and the team started to cover a lot of real estate, everything from cricket in India to rugby in the U.K. The best thing the brand can do right now is to be focused on fitness and people who are living an active life through running or training, and using a bit of the formula from back then by linking to partners who are committed to that space. The same way, back in the day, we were linked to the aerobics movement, we’re now linking to things like CrossFit, Ragnar Relays or Les Mills.”
Was it difficult to exit some of those big categories, like basketball?
MO: “We needed to come back to what made us great in the first place. But I can say it was not a decision that was taken lightly, because we ultimately exited 500 million euros, or nearly $600 million, of revenue. That’s the size of some companies in our industry. A lot of credit to the Adidas organization for being able to make that courageous decision, but in the long run, it’s definitely going to make us stronger.”
How do you build a business just focused on fitness?
MO: “We have this incredible [product] archive that gives us the back story and the foundation to build a modern version of fitness. A lot of what’s worked for us in the early years of our transition to fitness is reclaiming some of our most iconic models, like the Freestyle, the XO Fit, Club C, the Workout and the Classic Leather. And then we are using that storytelling to inform what fitness looks like today.”
Which archival shoes could be most relevant now?
MO: “We had a very successful franchise called DMX in the ’90s, which is a moving-air technology — air moves through the chambers of the midsole to make it more comfortable. The team has been working to reimagine what the expression of that technology is for the modern [era]. So in 2020, we’re launching a new DMX.”
In performance, the running and training categories have been soft lately. How will you reignite them?
MO: “We’ve been investing pretty heavily over the past several years in innovation and have some big new launches coming on the apparel and footwear side. This is ultimately what the consumer is looking for — not innovation for the sake of innovation but things that can truly improve the performance and overall wearability of our products.”
Which of your recent fitness partnerships have been the most successful for Reebok?
MO: “The partnerships that are most successful are the ones that are building communities. The more that the consumer feels engaged and connected, beyond just getting a workout in, is where I think the magic of fitness and activity happens. With our Ragnar Relay partnership [for instance], you get this group together, and it’s an incredible bonding experience. That has been magic for us in terms of creating a connection with the running community when running is often thought of as this solitary activity.”
When you first signed the deal with CrossFit, did you realize what that movement would become?
MO: “It was very small at the time, and people rightly thought, ‘Why are you guys giving this little thing so much attention?’ But having experienced it and visited a lot of CrossFit gyms that were around back then, we saw that this is where [fitness] is going. We live in a world where we’re hyperconnected digitally, but in a lot of ways, we’re longing for some physical connection. We want to look someone in the eyes and be physically together and work out, and we saw with CrossFit that that was going to be the magic of the whole experience.”
In today’s market, what is Reebok’s biggest challenge?
MO: “Our biggest challenge is our biggest opportunity: the U.S. market. This brand has been a big part of American sports culture for decades, and we have a job now to reclaim our position in the marketplace. We’re not expecting it to be given to us, so we have to work hard and make sure that we understand our consumer. [We must deliver] innovation and products that reflect that our consumer is not just seeing fitness as an activity; they’re seeing it as a way of life. So we’ve got to not only reflect their performance needs but their style needs.”
What are some of parent company Adidas’ main goals for Reebok?
MO: “Adidas feels like there’s a big opportunity for a brand of Reebok’s awareness and global scale to be a strong complement to the Adidas brand. By focusing on fitness, [we’ve] developed a strategy that’s more complementary than competitive with Adidas. While we’re both going to make leggings and great running shoes, there’s a difference in the way that we see ourselves and the sports we’re participating in. Adidas is more in traditional team sports, and Reebok is more focused on the fit-for-life consumer. So now there’s much more clarity of purpose.”
Personally, how does it feel to lead such a classic brand at this moment?
MO: “I’m passionate about it. I get up every morning and I’m excited about it. I actually have a delta tattoo. Because to me, it does symbolize that we’re working in a business that is trying to motivate people to do what comes natural, which is move. And if we’re physically active, a whole bunch of other good things happen in our lives: We’re cognitively stronger, our social relationships are better, we’re healthier and live longer. I get excited about what we’re doing, and I want more people to know about it. That’s our job, but I feel very fortunate to be working for a business that I can be so personally passionate about.”
Where do you picture Reebok being in the next decade?
MO: “Our desire is that the brand becomes a beacon for living a fit life and that we’re not just promoting sports to create fans for elite athletes. We want to be the brand that says, ‘Life isn’t a spectator sport; you’ve got to get involved.’ We have a real issue right now, not only in America but around the world, where there’s a growing gap between the people who are moving and those who are not moving. If this continues, incidents of Type 2 diabetes are going to more than triple, and we’re going to have a population who is suffering from a lot of diseases that could’ve been preventable. We’re looking at our mission at a big level, and that is, how do you start to inspire the population to move but also [encourage] people who are making decisions about school or health policy to think more about fitness as a solution to a lot of the issues that we’re facing.”