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How Reebok tackled India challenge

Meenakshi Radhakrishnan-Swami | February 15, 2005

Reebok India managing director Subhinder Singh Prem explains how you need breakthrough efforts to get breakthrough results.

In the initial years when we launched Reebok, our product offering was dominantly for the male consumer. At the time, sports and fitness was predominantly a male activity.

However, there was always the realisation that there is a female consumer who lives an active lifestyle -- who walks regularly, or even works out -- and who we could attract with our product offerings.

At Reebok, we believed that, although small, here was a business to be taken. And we started to play the percentage game, as I call it.

We adapted the format of all our stores and introduced a women's collection -- we created a small corner with 20-30 SKUs in apparel and shoes. It worked out well and soon our women's business was 15 per cent of our main business.

Our marketing to women took the grass-root path. We trained fitness instructors -- from 20 in 1996, we now have 700 Reebok-certified instructors in India -- who started a small fitness revolution in India under our RIA programme.

Our short-sighted approach showed up -- and showed us up -- in another initiative. In 2003, based on our finding that most women wear their husbands' T-shirts and trackpants, or salwar-kameez for walking, we launched a sports salwar-kameez in knit fabric.

The focus groups who were shown the product praised it and even suggested changes such as a closed neckline that would do away with the need for a dupatta.

But the product bombed. Indian women wanted clothes the rest of the world was wearing -- and we hadn't given them that. It was perhaps the only product in Reebok India's range that failed.

Still, we thought we were doing great. After all, the women's business accounted for 15 or 20 per cent of our income, 15 per cent of our SKUs, our marketing strategies were spot-on and we had a huge presence in gyms across the country.

But we never realised that we were doing lip service to this huge opportunity and business potential. The biggest problem with incremental results is you start believing you are on the right path... a sort of being happy with the progress and never dreaming of or going for transformational results.

As they say: Good is the biggest enemy of great.

We could have achieved a lot more if we had beefed up our product line or given a more exclusive focus to this segment. But we never challenged ourselves or pushed with our supremacy in the fitness business and aerobic expertise, which was so relevant with our female consumers.

And this when we had the claim of authenticity, the ability to touch this segment in a special and distinct manner.

We had the credentials. But the opportunity had not been funded or supported in its fullest form in order to stand up to be counted. Our commitment to women consumers was also following the percentage game -- it was a 15 per cent focus.

Naturally, then, consumers were not taking note of Reebok's initiative. Nobody notices the grass growing or pays attention to a trend that is slow in developing. Even the media ignored this initiative.

All this changed last year. At Reebok we realised that any company that starts by asking itself what the market size is, is taking the wrong road to success.

Our learnings were clear: "Ask not what percentage of an existing market your brand can achieve. Ask how large a market your brand can create by putting resources behind creating a category."

The most efficient, most productive, more useful aspect of branding is creating a new category. Start something totally new. After all, what was the market for home-delivered pizzas before Domino's began operations? Zero.

In 2004, we began to treat our womens' business initiative as if we were launching a new brand. We started promoting the category by opening women's-only stores that would meet the special needs of our women customers.

The décor and style of these stores is completely different; importantly, the testosterone level -- most sportswear stores are brimming over with male hormones -- is toned-down.

Over 200 SKUs in apparel and footwear are sold and the promotions in the store are laid out keeping the mindset and buying behaviour of this segment of customers.

For instance, we have a "Gang up for rewards" promotion for women shopping in groups -- I don't know of any women who shop alone!

Today, our women's business is a strategic business unit of its own, which sustains its own distribution stores and touches its audience in a sensitive and special manner.

Our learnings from our mistakes? If you believe in a concept, go for it; put your marketing branding dollars behind it. The concept will take off, pulling the brand along with it.

After all, percentage efforts get only percentage results. But breakthrough efforts get breakthrough results.

We could have been happy with the incremental results of yesterday and continued with the percentage treatment. But we challenged the paradigm and experimented with a more focused and positive approach.

And the efforts paid off.



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