German sporting-goods company adidas-Salomon AG returned from near death in the mid-1990s with a new focus and global strategy. No longer content to allow competitors, especially the seemingly invincible Nike, to dominate the sporting-goods category, adidas launched a full-scale offensive designed to increase awareness of the brand, enhance its image, and elevate sales. The company moved production facilities to Asia to cut manufacturing costs, formed high-visibility alliances with sports organizations and athletes (including a sponsorship of the New York Yankees baseball team beginning in 1997), purchased the French company Salomon SA (a manufacturer of golf, ski, and bike equipment) in 1997, and pumped additional funds into its modest marketing budget. Hoping to increase the sales of its running accessories in the United States, adidas America, Inc., the U.S. headquarters for adidas, released a provocative campaign titled ‘‘Runners. Yeah, We’re Different.’’
The San Francisco office of advertising agency Leagas Delaney released the branding campaign with an estimated $1 million. To prove that the company understood the sport of running, the ‘‘Runners. Yeah, We’re Different’’ campaign, which began in 1998, targeted the serious runner, a relatively small and anonymous audience. With full-page and two-page ads in specialty magazines such as Runner’s World and Running Times and with some executions in the general-interest Sports Illustrated, the series of print ads celebrated the rather unusual but relatively common habits of dedicated runners, such as smearing Vaseline on the inner thighs and under the arms to prevent chafing. Sean Ehringer, Leagas Delaney’s creative director, explained, ‘‘[adidas] wanted to do a brand focus campaign that gave them some running credentials, and the way we decided to do that was to let runners know that we understand them . . . Runners have their own kind of weird way of doing things, so there’s a lot of things to talk about there.’’ The campaign ended in 2000.
According to the ad-industry publication Campaign, ‘‘Runners. Yeah, We’re Different’’ was the third most awarded series of print ads in the world for 2000. It helped Adidas’s brand awareness in the United States reach record highs and was eventually expanded globally.
For the ‘‘Runners. Yeah, We’re Different’’ campaign, Adidas narrowed its audience to pinpoint the serious runner, a group frequently overlooked by the sports media despite the popularity of running. The lack of hype surrounding running could perhaps be attributed to the individuality and solitude of the sport. As Leagas Delaney’s Ehringer remarked, ‘‘Most people who run run silently on their own for their own reasons, and nobody even knows they exist.’’ Ehringer also emphasized the importance of running and said, ‘‘It is very much a unique and individual sport, but it’s a part of almost every athlete’s life at some point.’’ To lure runners, an extremely dedicated lot, Adidas adopted an honest and direct approach. Ryan Erickson, a marketing executive at adidas’s rival Reebok International Ltd., explained the importance of credibility when advertising to runners. Erickson said in Footwear News, ‘‘Runners sniff out fake stuff in a heartbeat.’’
In planning the ‘‘Runners. Yeah, We’re Different’’ branding campaign, Adidas and Leagas Delaney felt that it was important to speak directly to the runner. Ehringer told Joan Voight of Adweek, ‘‘I am so tired of this huge trend where ads keep telling you that you are not adequate in some way. ‘Be that’ or ‘Do this.’ . . . What is wrong with celebrating the fun-ness of the brand? . . . Better to have a conversation with people, not a conversation at people.’’ In keeping with this belief, and to make the most of Adidas’s marketing dollars, Leagas Delaney created a series of colorful print ads that celebrated running with a direct and unique approach only runners would likely appreciate and understand. Ehringer explained, ‘‘The unusual thing about [the campaign] was we were really very literal about it. I think it was pretty courageous to do ads that were so honest about really talking to runners that a lot of people wouldn’t even know what you were talking about.’’ To add an extra element of interest and to further suggest Adidas’s bond with runners, many of the ads starred Adidas-sponsored runners, talented athletes with little face-recognition value.
One of the early ads was a two-page color spread featuring a male runner—an adidas-sponsored marathon runner—applying bandages to his nipples at a road race. His shirt, with pinned-on race number, was casually tucked into the waistband of his shorts as he completed the bandaging task. Skyscrapers and other runners appeared in the background. A heavyset woman in nonrunning attire, perhaps a spectator, observed the runner’s ritual with a slightly bewildered look, emphasizing how odd the act must appear to nonrunners. The only text in the ad was the Adidas logo in one corner and the tagline in another.
A second ad showed a walking and running path in a city. A male runner blew his nose in typical runner fashion—with a finger pressed against one nostril to allow the forceful emanation of mucus from the other—as a disgusted nonrunning female looked on. The ‘‘Runners. Yeah, We’re Different’’ slogan appeared in the middle of the ad, and the text at the bottom read, ‘‘You’ve never experienced a support shoe like this. The incredibly smooth ride of the Equipment Tyranny is something different too.’’ The $1 million campaign appeared in running-specific publications such as Runner’s World and Running Times and in the popular magazine Sports Illustrated.
Another ad showed two male runners racing a cable car up a steep San Francisco hill as cable car riders looked on. The Vaseline ad featured a male and a female runner getting ready for a race by applying Vaseline to various body parts that might otherwise get rubbed raw while running. The male runner was Peter Julian, who was a four-time all-American while at the University of Portland. Similar ads continued until the campaign ended in 2000. The ‘‘Runners. Yeah, We’re Different’’ campaign generated much interest and discussion among runners. The campaign ended in 2000, and some of the final ads were bolder than those from 1998.
One 1999 ad, for example, featured a full view of the backside of a naked male runner (two-time 10,000-meter Olympian and four-time 10,000-meter U.S. champion Todd Williams) who stood by the open trunk of his car to change out of his muddy running clothes. Another ad showed a female runner squatting by a tree next to a trail, her shorts pulled down. Although these ads were quite daring, the acts featured were not out of the ordinary for runners.
Adidas’s director of marketing communications, Karyn Thale, told Adweek that the company was pleased with the advertising efforts and said, ‘‘It is time to tell our story in the U.S., and the Leagas ads are doing a great job of [expressing] our brand’s young, fresh and hardworking image here.’’ Adidas continued to thrive and in 1998 held onto its number three ranking in the athletic-footwear industry with a 6 percent share, according to market research firm NPD Group, Inc. In comparison, Nike’s retail dollar share was 34 percent and Reebok’s 13 percent. Although overall spending on athletic shoes dropped 6 percent from the previous year, running shoes continued to lead the athletic-footwear category, acquiring 17.1 percent of retail sales. Adidas’s U.S. net sales jumped 68 percent to $1.59 billion, and the running category grew more than 50 percent from 1997. Adidas spokesperson John Fread told the Business Journal of Portland, ‘‘For us,  was an outstanding year, another record.’’ Adidas was definitely back in the game, and it planned to stay there, pursuing its commitment to sports and athletes around the globe.
In the campaign’s final year adidas reached its highest brand awareness in company history. The adidas sales increase during the campaign shocked sporting-goods analysts because running shoes were previously considered a slow-growth category. The print ads collected more awards than print ads released by any other competitor in 2000, and adidas eventually expanded the campaign internationally.
Advertising Agency: Leagas Delaney, San Francisco, CA
Creative Director: Harry Cocciolo, Sean Ehringer
Art Director: David Ayriss, Peter Nicholson
Copywriter: Steve Morris, Scott Wild
Photographers: Eugene Richards, William Howard