REEBOK'S BIGGEST MARKETING FAILURE
Updated: Mar 12
This article was originally published on April 8th, 2020.
Reebok is a brand that can trace their history to the 1800s when their founders first had the idea of producing a spiked running shoe. Since then, the company’s fortunes have been mixed, becoming a powerhouse sporting brand in the 80s before fading from consumer consciousness the decade after.
Following their acquisition by Adidas Group, Reebok resurfaced as a brand for cross-fit enthusiasts. The brand's transition signifies a major shift in its strategies, pro athletes are out, and fitness junkies are in.
The move to abandon sponsorships deals with the highest level of sport that can be traced back to the 1992 Olympics where the brands saw its highest-profile marketing mistake.
In the early 90s, Reebok was second to Nike in the athletic shoe market. Determined to compete with their Oregon-based opponents, Reebok choose to go down the route of athlete sponsorship.
In the lead-up to the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games Reebok would choose two obscure decathletes, Dan O’Brien (@DanOBrien) and Dave Johnson, and try to turn them into household names.
Both O’Brien and Johnson were heavy favorites to win the gold at the Olympic games, even before the qualifying competition. This lead Reebok to spend $25million on the “Dan & Dave” campaign, which invited Americans to choose sides, playing the two decathlon contenders against one another in a series of TV adverts. It would become the biggest advertising campaign in track and field history and one of the biggest advertising campaigns in the history of sports.
The ad campaign would make its debut during Super Bowl XXVI in a series of sequential shorts building up the rivalry. The Super Bowl ads were made up mostly from home videos and photos of the two athletes, followed by the tagline "This summer they will battle it out in Barcelona for the title of world's greatest athlete."
The marketing campaign proved to be an initial hit for Reebok, “Dan & Dave” caught the eye and ear of consumers across the country. The simple hook of 'pick a side', are you for Dan or Dave? helped the American public fall in love with the two previously unheard of decathletes.
Dan and Dave
Dave Johnson grew up in Missoula, Montana. Not a place you'd associate with street gangs but Johnson was part of the West Side Gang. One story told of how he made his own brass knuckles out of a dog chain. Once, Johnson stole the key to a Budweiser distributorship and the gang stole $5,000 worth of beer.
Johnson would later state, "Running from the police made me fast."
It wouldn't be until he attended Azusa Pacific College, that Johnson managed to turn his life around and blossom into a decathlete.
In 1990, he would go on to win the gold medal at the Goodwill Games for the decathlon. Opening him up to sponsors such as Body Fuel and Oakley.
Dan O'Brien grew up in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Born to an African-American father and a Finnish mother, he was adopted at age two by an Irish-American family.
By 1991, he was the reigning world decathlon champion. At one point he'd won all eight decathlons he entered.
The decathlon is often considered the toughest of all the Olympic track and field events. This is due to the event consisting of so many different parts, in total there are ten different events contested over the course of two days, with the athlete's performance in each event added to their overall points total.
On day one each athlete has to compete in the 100-meter sprint, long jump, shot put, high jump, and 400-meter run. Day two consists of the 110-meter hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw, and 1,500-meter run.
Before Reebok could showcase their stars at the Olympics in Barcelona, O’Brien and Johnson had to go to the U.S. Olympic qualifying event in New Orleans and confirm their spot on the flight to Spain. O’Brien and Johnson would be competing with other U.S. athletes hoping to place within the top three finishers, to qualify.
On the first day of qualifying, Reebok took full advantage of the opportunity to showcase their stars, draping fans with white hats and t-shirts emblazoned with either a red 'Dan' or blue 'Dave.'
Everything would go according to script with both of Reebok's stars racking up points. Reigning world champion O’Brien would lead the pack, ahead of world record pace, a whopping 512 points ahead of Johnson, it would be unlikely for Johnson to catch up to O'Brien.
On the second day Johnson, who was the best second-day decathlete of all time, began to close the points gap with O’Brien, on the first two events of the day, 110-meter hurdles and discus throw.
The third event, the pole vault, is where athletes attempt to clear increasing heights one by one, the higher the bar, the more points an athlete receives. Each athlete gets three attempts at any given height and each athlete gets the opportunity to choose whatever height they would like to start at.
With O’Brien and Johnson pushing each other at the top of the leader's table, they both began aggressively, choosing the same height 15 feet and 9 inches.
Johnson would pass the first test no problem, for O'Brien the height was 1 foot 4 inches, lower than his personal best, it also shouldn't have been a problem.
However, he would fail to record a proper jump on his first effort and knocked the bar on his second. Suddenly, this final third jump would become the most pressure-packed moment of O'Brien's life.
He would start his approach twice, stopping both times, feeling his timing was off. O’Brien finally got himself ready for his third jump, but would not even manage to reach the bar, meaning that he would score zero points on the pole vault event. The zero points achieved now made making the U.S. Olympic team an impossibility for O'Brien.
After O'Brien's disappointment in New Orleans, Reebok immediately pulled the spots, replacing them with adverts from another campaign, with athletes Roger Clemens (@rogerclemens) and Raghib Ismail.
Reebok would rework the post-trials Dan and Dave campaign. Now adverts showed O'Brien cheering for Johnson in his pursuit for gold, in Barcelona. One of the post-trials commercials had O’Brien laying on a lounge chair drinking from a glass with an umbrella in it while Johnson ran wind sprints.
However, Johnson going into the Olympics was managing a stress fracture in his foot. Johnson would leave the 1992 Olympics with a bronze medal, becoming the first American to medal in the decathlon, since Bruce Jenner in 1976.
Despite Johnson's failure to come away with the gold, another Reebok athlete would take it home, Robert Změlík. The Czech athlete's victory was never mentioned in any marketing in the U.S.
After Barcelona the Dan and Dave campaign would come to an end, Bernadette Mansur, a Reebok spokeswoman would go on to say, "We knew it was a risk, and it is in our nature to take risks."
O'Brien would recapture the form he had previously shown, going on to win two more world championships and a gold medal in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. However, O'Brien would eventually win the gold as a Nike athlete, after his contract with Reebok was ended.
The Dan and Dave campaign was not the end of Reebok's marketing failures in the 1990s. Reebok would sign a $1.5 million product placement deal with the 1996 hit movie Jerry Maguire.
However, A significant plot point in the movie involves Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Rod Tidwell, a high-spirited and ambitious football player who nurses a film-long grudge against Reebok for ignoring the gridiron talents he so passionately believes he possesses.
At the end of the movie, there was meant to be a commercial with Tidwell, which would redeem Reebok and make them look like the good guys. However, Reebok would repeatedly fail to turn in a reel that director Cameron Crowe was happy with, that whole redemption scene was left out of the movie. Leaving Reebok as the closest thing the film has to a villain, so much that Cuba Gooding Jr. yells "Fuck Reebok!"