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The History of Reebok

Reebok, a footwear and sportswear brand, has been the subsidiary of parent company Adidas since the latter acquired it in 2005. This acquisition allowed Adidas to compete more directly with its rivals, most especially Nike.

Before Nike made its ubiquitous presence in the sneakers market and popular culture, it took some critical cues from several companies that preceded it. One of these companies is its former business partner – the Japanese multinational brand Asics, then Onitsuka Company Limited. And then the British company Reebok – which a few would consider today as a “sneaker war” giant. 

Over the years, Reebok’s history is a checkered one at best. It has been both a preeminent sneaker brand and a seasonal afterthought, with its popularity fluctuating from one spectrum to another in a span of a few years.

Reebok’s earliest origins

Reebok’s roots trace back to Bolton, Lancashire, England, in 1895, when a teenager named Joseph William Foster worked as an apprentice for his cobbler grandfather. He learned about making and designing shoes.

With his ideas progressing, Foster opened his own business, J. W. Foster, in 1900. Many years later, his own sons joined him in the business and the company became J. W. Foster and Sons. Foster soon opened another factory, Olympic Works. He pioneered the spikes on the outsoles, and his revolutionary “running pumps” (“pumps” is a regional British term for running shoes or sneakers) became a hit among athletes. Foster’s athletic shoes raised their profile further when runner Harold Abrahams (who would be immortalized in the 1981 Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire) wore them in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, France, where he won a gold medal. And since then, Foster’s athletic pumps had continued to be popular throughout Great Britain.

Reebok’s founding and company history

Although the Foster family business had been operating since 1895, Reebok was not founded until 1958. Foster’s own grandsons, Joe and Jeff Foster, took over the company and came up with a new name, “Reebok,” from the Afrikaans name for the grey rhebok, a type of African antelope.

Over the years since Reebok’s founding, Reebok increased its penetration into new markets and began selling its products in over 28 countries. Along the way, it continued to expand its products from tennis and aerobic shoes to basketball sneakers. The brand’s growth accelerated even more rapidly when it captured the American market in 1979. Reebok was exhibiting at the Chicago International Sneaker Trade Show at the time when businessman Paul Fireman discovered the brand. Fireman eventually acquired the exclusive right to distribute Reebok products in the US and the rest of North America.

By the 1980s, Reebok had begun introducing a wider range of products, including sports apparel and accessories. Over the years, Reebok has developed high-quality sports clothing products like track tops.

a pair of Reebok Freestyle shoes

Reebok’s rise to the top came at an opportune time as the fitness and aerobics craze dominated the early part of the decade, allowing the brand to capitalize on their revolution.  While the two most prominent brands, Nike and Adidas, were vying for the top position in the men’s market, it mostly overlooked the women’s segment. In 1982 Reebok took the opportunity when it introduced the Reebok Freestyle (above picture), an aerobics shoe specifically made and marketed for women. Needless to say, it became a smash hit, accounting for more than half of Reebok’s total sales. By 1983 Reebok’s sales had reached $13 million.

In 1984 – five years after acquiring Reebok’s distribution license – Fireman bought out Reebok’s British parent company. It was a big risk that would help cement Reebok’s dominance in the latter part of the decade. A year later, it had its IPO at the New York Stock Exchange. 

By the mid-1980s, Reebok had become the top athletic footwear brand in North America. In 1988, Reebok’s sales totaled $1.8 billion, with the company controlling 26.7% in the sports footwear market and surpassing Nike’s $1.2 billion in sales. Reebok’s staggering success was attributed to the company’s focus on making footwear fashionable outside of athletics and fitness, which resonated strongly with customers.

But as we say, all good things come to an end. Nike seemed to take some cues from Reebok and began making and marketing shoes for fashion-oriented customers. In turn, Reebok tried to copy Nike by rebranding itself as a performance company by placing technology over fashion in their new products.

And Reebok did focus on bringing the latest in shoe technology. The result is the Reebok Pump, which debuted in 1989. The Reebok Pump used an internal inflation technology to offer a snug, custom fit. Stealing another page from Nike’s playbook, Reebok also came to emphasize the use of professional athletes as endorsers and brand ambassadors, something that Nike had done with great success. More than 100 pro athletes sported the Reebok Pump, including NBA star Shaquille O’Neal in 1992. It was to become one of Reebok’s signature shoes.

In 1996, Reebok signed a $50-million-dollar deal with rising NBA star Allen Iverson, who endorsed the longest shoe line in Reebok’s history, just yet, beginning with the Question shoe and ending with the Answer shoe.

In 1997, Reebok introduced a new cushioning system called DMX. In this technology, the air runs through the shoe via connected bulbous pods to better distribute weight and support throughout the sole, therefore improving the wearer’s running performance. Reebok launched the DMX Run, the first shoe to use such technology.

While Reebok did not quite equal its 1980s success, it enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the 1990s and the early 2000s. But there were certain areas that Reebok fell flat, such as the apparel segment, at least compared to titans Nike and Adidas. Virtually all of Reebok’s success comes from its sneakers.

In 2005, Adidas bought Reebok for $3.8 billion. Now with Reebok as its subsidiary, Adidas could compete more directly and aggressively with Nike, the world’s top sneakers and sportswear brand. But despite the acquisition, both brands still kept their separate names.

In 2009, Adidas moved Reebok’s headquarters from its former location in Bolton, Lancashire, England, to Massachusetts, USA. The following year, it partnered with fitness company CrossFit, including sponsoring the CrossFit Games. Reebok released the Reebok Nano in 2011 as its first official CrossFit shoe. While the moves didn’t quite match the company’s earlier successes, they proved to be quite profitable for the company. 

In recent years, Reebok has signed more celebrities as endorsers or brand ambassadors. In 2016 the company tapped Gigi Hadid as brand ambassador as part of the “Perfect Never” campaign. The movement called for women from all over the world to embrace imperfections, strength, and determination. Two years later, Reebok signed Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot as its new brand ambassador for its “Be More Human” campaign that was launched back in 2015.

Although Reebok is not as much discussed as the other brands, the company is still a solid contender, offering quality shoes and other athletic and outdoor products for competitive prices. Knowing Reebok’s long, checkered but illustrious history that started way back over a century ago, perhaps it’s a good reason to check out and buy a new pair of Reebok sneakers.

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