When a brand claims that women are a priority, they really have to put their money where their mouth is. To say that a brand supports and empowers women it needs to come from a place of authenticity. If it’s just empty marketing slogans with nothing behind it, then what’s the point?
Reebok has been working hard to this for decades. It’s not about hopping on the bandwagon and doing something just because it makes sense in the current cultural climate. From the Reebok Freestyle in the ‘80s, a fitness shoe made specifically for women before the competition ever considered it, to launching campaigns in the ‘90s and early 2000s like It’s a Woman’s World that were solely dedicated to showing how powerful women can be, supporting women has always been part of Reebok’s mission.
According to the Reebok Archive, in 1979 the release of the Aztec Princess, a women’s running shoe, is what paved the way for Reebok to enter the U.S. market. While originally a men’s running sneaker, the shoe featured innovations in running footwear with a sole structured and lasted specifically for women. The sneaker received the highest accolades from reputable media outlets and the Reebok Archive says this silhouette was a pivotal moment in Reebok history.
Reebok Archive Sample, 1983, Aztec Princess II
Things really kicked into gear in the 1980s when Reebok played a heavy role in the popularity of aerobics to the fitness world that all centered around one shoe: the Reebok Freestyle. In 1982, the Freestyle became the first fitness shoe designed for women, giving women permission to sweat in a shoe that finally actually fit their foot (crazy, right?), and 37 years later it remains an icon.
In a 2018 interview with the Reebok Archive former marketing CMO of Reebok, Angel Martinez, spoke about the importance of the women’s fitness movement.
“It’s hard to believe that for women today that women weren’t supposed to sweat in public, you glistened you didn’t sweat. So the Freestyle comes along, aerobics comes along empowers women through strenuous physical activity…The women doing aerobics were incredibly fit, incredibly strong and that was something that captured the imagination of young women at the time. The Freestyle was the shoe that made that possible. There was a cultural shift of what the Freestyle represented and what Reebok was doing.”
Reebok Archive, 1985
The sneaker soon went beyond just the fitness realm, hitting the red carpet and the streets before becoming a fashion staple in the 90s. It became fondly known as the 54’11 for its original sales price and became a symbol all its own.
“It was about fashion, it was about fitness, it was about aesthetics and it was about something else that the ‘athletic world had never seen before’, women buying shoes,” says Martinez.
During the aerobics craze, one of the more well-known and iconic workout systems was STEP Reebok. According to the Reebok Archive, the shoe “…was positioned as ‘The First Aerobic Workout with Muscle’, an overnight sensation as a low-impact, high energy workout alternative for total fitness.” Since aerobics was mainly female focused, STEP Reebok changed the game for how to look at fitness and reminded women about the transformative power of sport. After that came an entire line of footwear and apparel for women to support the success of the program. The goal was to build inclusivity at the gym and in the workout world so that women felt they had a stake in the game.
In the late ‘80s came an epic sci-fi thriller that would put Reebok and women in the spotlight in a totally unexpected way. In 1986, the movie Aliens was released where the Reebok Alien Stomper boot, now a major cult classic for fans of the franchise, was worn by the female protagonist of the movie. The sci-fi genre of movies is typically male dominated and according to the Reebok Archive, “…the boot embodied Reebok’s ongoing relationship with women and its daring attitude at the time.” While it was a risk, it was a natural progression for Reebok to be supporting such a strong female character who was breaking barriers. The film’s success was totally unprecedented and led to multiple movies and many recent re-releases of the boot, solidifying its place in sneaker history.
Reebok Archive Sample, 1986, Alien Stomper Boot
While the ‘80s were an amazing time for Reebok as an innovator building its stance for women and learning what could be done when you challenge the status quo, the ‘90s is when the brand really put it all into action. In the early ‘90s, Reebok designer Judy Close and team realized there were no basketball shoes currently in market built for an outdoor game. So she designed some. According to the Reebok Archive, BLACKTOP—as the shoes were called—were the first of their kind and allowed players to have quality kicks on their feet on the outdoor court. Judy’s work on the BLACKTOP line made waves in yet another predominately male-dominated area of sport, marking her spot as a top-tier designer in basketball. Close went on to design the Shaq Attaq, still known today as one of the great sneakers of that time.
Reebok Archive Sample, 1992, The Plateau Pump
In a 2017 interview with the Reebok Archive, Close spoke about the origins of BLACKTOP and how the vision came together to push limits.
“It was just being together in a group, understanding the business we were going after, who our consumer was, what the products and capabilities were and pushing those to where they hadn’t been.”
The innovations in footwear in the ‘90s continued on, but it wasn’t until 1995 when Reebok decided to focus on women’s fitness in a brand-new way. The Reebok Archive states that, “The ads of that year showed women in all areas of life and showed the variety of forms women can take and the importance of women as a group.” What Reebok didn’t realize at the time was the power and significance of the ads they were creating that are just as relevant today as they were 24 years ago.
1995 also marked the release of Reebok’s Versa Training, a fitness program that gave women a series of workouts that matched their preferences, giving them the power of choice to reach their unique goals. The Reebok Archive says the home workout videos also came with a paper guide to map it all out, arming women with the information they needed to empower themselves.
The late ‘90s saw Reebok shifting its advertising from women as a group to powerful individual women, catering their messaging even more. These years would become revolutionary. According to the Reebok Archive, in 1997 the advertisements described finding motivation in your back pocket and running over insecurities, which demonstrated the power and determination women have to succeed.
Reebok Archive, 1997
In 1998, the release of Reebok Women’s Anthem became a rallying cry for both Reebok’s women’s division and female consumers to know their power and worth. Even in the ‘90s Reebok saw and understood the significance of ensuring women were heard, so they gave them the tools. The marketing played off of marriage vows, the Declaration of Independence and Miranda Rights, giving a creed for women to believe in. The result was powerful.
Reebok Archive, 1998
In 1999 Reebok centered communication with women on harnessing the power from within. The Reebok Archive states, “…the ad campaign Reebok Powers Women showed where women find their power and asked consumers, ‘What gives you the power?’ This cemented Reebok’s place as a catalyst for empowering women.”
As the new millennium rolled around, Reebok’s Natural Women Epitomize “Flow” campaign took center stage. Released in 2000, the Reebok Archive says the concept was around the numerous definitions of the word “Flow”, the most striking meaning being, ‘characterized by a natural confidence’.
Reebok Archive, 2000
But in 2001, It’s A Woman’s World was released, a campaign so poignant and statement-making that even today, it’s remembered as a groundbreaking, ahead-of-its-time moment for Reebok. Michelle Sassa worked for the agency who created the campaign for Reebok and remembers that it was born out of a necessity to showcase that a new era for women had dawned.
Reebok Archive, 20001
“As a female soccer player in the years leading up to Title IX, I had grown up seeing – and being inspired by – advertising that told girls to just do it, be strong, anything boys can do you can do,” she says. “But by the new millennium, my peers and I were sick of all the clichés of female empowerment. Our mothers had fought for Women’s Liberation and won. We didn’t need permission to be equal to men, we already were. It’s just that the media wasn’t showing this new reality. We no longer needed to be told we could do it, we wanted to celebrate all the things we had done.”
With this notion in mind Sassa and her coworker aligned on the direction and messaging and it took off from there.
“My creative partner Matt Murphy and I set out to create work that reflected this reality, and show all the ways women were ruling, leading and defying gender roles. Reebok’s heritage was in women’s fitness, and their tagline was “Defy Convention,” so we wrote a series of scenarios in which women were doing just that. Flipping the script on age-old stereotypes and reversing roles to show women in control.”
Reebok Archive, 2001
The ever-present reality of the industry was that marketing to a female audience was competitive, and could teeter into clichés if it wasn’t done right.
“The campaign was a celebration of how far woman had come, and a departure from the sappy, sentimental “female empowerment” advertising that had been done to death. Also, this work had a new tone, much of it witty and irreverent like the commercials you’d normally see during a football game, targeting men. Humor was rare in female advertising at the time—it still is!”
For Sassa, who was typically the only woman in the room during her meetings, the campaign meant so much more than just that one moment and is just as relevant today was it was then.
“I think ‘It’s a Woman’s World’ was ahead of its time! When this work ran, some of the scenarios, like having a female president, were aspirational, or a fantasy. Now such scenarios aren’t just conceivable, they are happening! It’s so exciting that many of the cultural and gender stereotypes from the past no longer exist. Women have created the change we wanted to see in the world. Our time has come.”
While that new era that had erupted in the early 2000s was impactful and significant, there is still so much more work left to be done when it comes to the inclusion and equality of women.
Throughout the years, Reebok continued signing female athletes who were breaking the molds in male dominated sports and collaborating with smart, creative women who were fighting for their rightful seat at the table as artists. In 2018, they released an entirely women’s focused brand campaign that featured women from all walks of life promoting and supporting each other.
From the women in the ‘80s commuting in the Freestyle to the powerful women’s movement in our culture today, the conversation continues and is challenging brands to do better. To this day Reebok is daring to push the limits to make progress and is giving opportunities for women to bring each other along.
Have you heard Reebok Classic’s podcast focused on women and representation in sneaker culture? Check out Flipping The Game here.