Reebok's Popeye Play

I can hear Popeye now, with that Rum and cigarette soaked voice, reciting,
David Kiley

I can hear Popeye now, with that Rum and cigarette soaked voice, reciting, "I Yam What I Yam." Reebok, the sneaker maker, is launching its first global campaign since "Planet Reebok" a decade ago, with the slogan, "I Am What I Am." No sign of the spinach eating sailor with the jones for ultra-skinny women. But Yao Ming, Allen Iverson, Andy Roddick, Lucy Liu, Jay Z (Sean Carter) and 50 Cent are all flogging for Reebok.

The campaign has the celebrities saying things about themselves that consumers/fans wouldn't necessarily expect. It's not sales pitch stuff. Nothing to do with sneakers. "Where I am from, there is no Plan B. So, take advantage of today because tomorrow is not promised." In the Yao Ming ad, the relentlessly upbeat Chinese basketball star says, "I'm happy that there are commercials and billboards that show me smiling. They do what I can't--smile 24 hours a day."

"This is a unique and ownable position relative to our competitors," says Reebok chief marketing officer Dennis Baldwin. "We think people, especially the young consumer we are after, want to define themselves. They don't want to be told to 'Just Do It.'"

Saying his strategy is smarter than Nike's is bold talk, considering Reebok has about a 14% share, while Nike stands at 36%.

The print ads are in March magazines, and the TV versions begin running on February 20 during the NBA All-Star game.

I wouldn't yet call Nike's marketing platform out of step. But I think Baldwin is on to something with people wanting to write their own definition of what athletic and cool mean, versus copping on to a tagline. On the other hand, with a campaign filled with highly paid celebrities trying to look cool and sound cool, perhaps the young people who want to burn their own CDs, find their own pod-cast, make their own film and design their own sneakers will think another celebrity-filled campaign is lame.

Marketing sneakers is all about the imagery and who endorses what shoe. Reebok not only has a good roster of NBA stars, but it wisely staked out two of the most influential figures in hip-hop right now--Jay-Z and 50 Cent. Baldwin says shoes marketed directly with and through those two music stars brought in excess of $100 million last year. Don't look now, but new hip-hop artists are about to be in as much demand as NBA draft picks for sneaker contracts.

That the music culure would find the big money in sneaker enforsements was only a matter of time. The obvious crossover appeal between the NBA and rap/hip-hop is evidenced in a deal done last year by Damon Dash who added the Pro-Keds brand to his stable of lifestyle brands at Rock-A-Fella Records, which already includes a phenomenally successful clothing line, magazine, vodka and films. Pro-keds was moribund. But not for long.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.