Adidas courts smallness to sell extreme gear

For more than 70 years, Adidas' trefoil logo and its predecessor, the three left-leaning lines, have personified sport, helping it to peddle everything from shoes to shirts to shorts the world over. But with DAS, the company's new alternative sports lifestyle...
March 1, 2000

For more than 70 years, Adidas’ trefoil logo and its predecessor, the three left-leaning lines, have personified sport, helping it to peddle everything from shoes to shirts to shorts the world over. But with DAS, the company’s new alternative sports lifestyle apparel and footwear line, neither icon is anywhere to be found.

‘The athlete who skates or BMXs wears clothing that is more lifestyle-oriented than the regular athlete’s, and that’s provided us with a platform that we couldn’t justify making in any other category,’ says DAS business unit manager Eric Lyon, explaining the decision to lose the company logo. Though the Adidas name does appear on DAS clothing and shoes, the conspicuous omission of the company’s icon is indicative of its strategy to capitalize on the increasingly important extreme sport apparel market that’s currently dominated by companies like Vans and Airwalk, by appealing to the sensibilities of its target consumer group of teens and 20-somethings. And achieving that goal starts with embracing rule number one of marketing alternative sports gear: avoid ubiquity at all costs, at least initially.

Cribbing from the playbook of upstarts like Vans and Airwalk, Adidas unloaded DAS quietly into a smattering of California skate shops last January. Though Lyon says the initial sell-in of the gear didn’t meet expectations (mainly because the company had yet to assemble its entire sales team), by the end of this month, he hopes to have the DAS shoes and clothes in 350 accounts spread out across five key regions, including New York, Florida, Denver and Southern and Northern California, with the shoes slated to follow in 2001. (At press time, Adidas had yet to finalize all the items that would be included in the DAS line.) But don’t bother searching the Footlocker at the local mall for DAS because you won’t find it. The company is distributing the line exclusively through specialty skate retailers like Copelands on the West coast and Blades, Board and Skates on the East.

‘That’s where the kids who are into [extreme] sports are shopping today,’ says Lyon. ‘If you look at what’s happening in teen fashion [right now], most of it is coming from specialty and going to the mainstream retailers.’

The apparel line, which includes 60 items for both men and women in the 12 to 25 age demo, ranges from cargo pants, to khakis, to shirts, to fleece, vests and outerwear. Lyon says DAS is similar in look to other teen lifestyle lines on the market, except it incorporates athletic components that make the clothes quintessentially Adidas, like draw-cord waists and ankle zippers on some of the pants. The shoes, of which there are 15 different styles and 45 SKUs, use fabric and cushioning technologies that Adidas developed for its various traditional sports lines, making them lighter and more durable.

‘We’re not going to compete with your core skate brand. The key for us is to remain consistent with who we are as a company by making the clothes more athletic. [But] we don’t need skateboarding to keep the lights on here,’ says Lyon.

While that may be so, the sales horizon for the industry in which Adidas currently does its core business, athletic footwear, is looking very overcast. According to the NPD Group, sales for the teen athletic shoe category for the first three quarters of 1999 fell 5% to US$2.69 billion, down from US$2.82 billion for the same period in ’98. Lack of product innovation and a growing disenchantment with professional sports has contributed to the slide in athletic shoe sales, but the main culprit, says Lyon, has been a change in teen tastes. With more and more kids shopping for lifestyle wear by brands like FUBU, Abercrombie & Fitch and Old Navy, they’re abandoning the traditional mall-based sporting goods retailers that stock Adidas’s gear, which has forced the company to do some corporate navel-gazing. Hence, the creation of DAS. But cashing in on the skate apparel biz, which Lyon pegs at about US$500 million, is a tricky maneuver to negotiate. A strong anticorporate strain informs skate culture, and the teens who are into it tend to turn off a brand quickly once they get a whiff of johnny-come-lately corporate profiteering. It’s a characteristic of the customer base that Lyon is taking into account in marketing DAS.

‘There’s going to be a certain consumer who’s not interested in the brand, and that’s fine. At the same time, if we’re able to support the sport and the lifestyle in various ways, then I think that translates back to the consumer,’ says Lyon.

Some of those measures include sponsoring local skate parks and events like the Summer Skate Series Adidas hosted in Oakland last August. Over the last year, Lyon and his sales people have used the events to do a lot of seeding, giving away free pairs of DAS shoes and apparel to athletes in order to get feedback and to foment some early buzz for the line.

Lyon has also put together a marketing team comprised of professional skaters, who will do in-store demos and promos at key DAS accounts beginning in spring. A tongue-in-cheek print ad campaign, which Lyon says pokes fun at Adidas’ bigness, is also slated to kick off this month and will run in skate and BMX mags.

Ultimately, downplaying the global reach of the Adidas brand may not be so crucial to DAS’s success, considering that the company has already garnered some acceptance among past generations of skaters. According to Lyon, many boarders in the `70s and `80s wore Gazelles, Superstars and other Adidas styles, but that doesn’t mean Lyon is thinking of using the company’s skate heritage to sell the new brand.

‘Our past success with skaters is not something we look at pimping because it was a genuine interest that people had in our product, not something that we artificially created.’

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