Reebok International Limited is a Fortune 500 company that makes athletic clothing, shoes, and various other accessories, such as sunglasses and gym bags. Founded in 1895 as J.W. Foster and Sons, the company initially produced only athletic shoes. In 1958, the company reformed itself into Reebok, named after a fleet footed African gazelle. Originally founded in England, the company is now headquartered in the United States of America, Canton, Massachusetts to be specific.
The company has in recent years been in the forefront, at least amongst sportswear companies, of human rights advocacy. They annually award a human rights award, were one of the first companies in their field to stop doing business with South Africa during Apartheid, and recently became the first company accredited by the Fair Labor Association. Buying from Reebok, you can rest assured that the shoes on your feet were not made in a sweatshop. Or at the very least, a much nicer sweatshop.
The company started out in 1895, in Bolton, England when Joseph William Foster, not being able to find a suitable shoe made by someone else, started making running shoes himself, becoming the first person to manufacture a shoe with spikes in it, for better traction. It remained a small family company, catering almost exclusively to top athletes of the time, including the members of the 1924 British Olympic team, who were the focus of the 1981 film Chariots of Fire.
The company continued like that until 1958, when a pair of J. W. Foster's grandsons reformed the company into Reebok, which they named after an African gazelle. They still focused mostly upon the top of the line market, as well as the British market, until 1979. That year an American sporting goods distributer by the name of Paul Fireman spotted Reebok shoes at an international trade show. Impressed with the shoes, he obtained a licence to distribute Reebok to the North American market, starting with three models of shoes. At $60 a pop, they were at the time the most expensive running shoes available in regular retail stores.
In 1981, Reebok unveiled the Freestyle™, the first athletic shoe designed for women. The timing was awesome, as it came just in time to tap into the new aerobics craze. The shoe, Reebok's all time best seller, catapulted Reebok to the #1 company for sales. They grew upon this success, launching a number of other product lines, most of which did quite well. In the wake of their sales growth, Reebok went public in 1985, after 90 years of operation as a family company. I imagine the IPO made various members of the Foster family very rich.
Later on in the 1980's, they introduced The Pump™, which used a small air pump to inflate bladders in the shoe, creating (In theory), a tighter fit. How useful it actually was is debatable, but soon after it was introduced, all the cool kids had them. You do wanna be cool, don'tcha?
Reebok was also partially responsible for the success of step aerobics, while not having invented it, they were quite active in marketing the idea, and of course selling a whole lot of shoes in the process.
In the early 1990's, Reebok started to broaden their focus from strictly fitness apparel, to a wide range of sports gear, shoes, apparel, and the like. As part of this, they started sponsoring high profile athletes. For example, they signed NBA star Allen Iverson to an exclusive promotional contract, which was recently extended to a lifetime contract. Some other examples of athletes that they sponsor include Venus Williams, Yao Ming, and Ryan Giggs.
In 2000, they inked a deal with the National Football League, guaranteeing that for 10 years, they would be the only company to supply uniforms, footwear, and other equipment. And, much more profitable for the company, they also hold exclusive licencing rights to sell NFL branded sports gear. And, the next year, they signed the same deal with the National Basketball Association, and the Women's National Basketball Association. Now, if you purchase a jersey of your favorite NBA or NFL team, it'll have been made by Reebok.
They have also recently launched a new line of shoes and clothing based not on athletics, but rap music. Their new street gear is being designed / promoted by rap artists such as Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and Mis-Teeq. Combining two things which are rather popular amongst youth, rap music and basketball, has so far been rather profitable. It also signifies a shift for the company, away from a strategy of marketing the athletic capabilities of their gear, towards a more Nike-esque way of marketing the Reebok brand itself.
Update: On August 3, 2005, rival sports equipment company Adidias accounced an offer to purchase Reebok. They've offering $59 per share, $8 per share above market price as of the time I'm posting this. The deal still needs to be approved by Reebok shareholders.
Reebok. "History," Reebok. 2004. <www.reebok.com/ukeng/history> (December 30, 2004).
John David Group. "Reebok History," Brands. 2004. <www.jdsports.co.uk/brands.asp?id1=3&id2=1583&page=1> (December 30, 2004).