Stars in stripes

The German sportswear giant Adidas is recruiting cool brand ambassadors to promote its classic trainers throughout pop culture
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The Independent Online

There are many more ways of communicating elements of your brand to a media-savvy audience than having the Beastie Boys rock the stage on their recent UK dates, covered head to ankle in adidas stripes (in keeping with their tongue-in-cheek "no sneakers jam" slogan, they wore Clarks on their feet). But this most recent coup was on a small scale compared to the global impact of David Beckham striding out before the watching world at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Manchester wearing a customised, sequined adidas tracksuit.

Gary Aspden, the global head of entertainment promotions for the German sportswear giants, looks back on the plan hatched and executed in upmost secrecy with Beckham and describes it as the "PR equivalent of the Great Train Robbery". But not all the work done by the global entertainment and trend marketing department at adidas takes place under the global spotlight. Their educational, permissive approach to communicating the brand and its heritage takes many forms, ranging from localised ambient campaigns, such as the step-risers outside the South Bank that immortalised Olympic medallists around the Sydney Games of 2000, to shop window displays at Savile Row's Oki-Ni on the evolution of the Predator football boot. The aim of this relatively new marketing science is to assist discovery of details about the brand, rather than to directly coerce consumers into parting with their cash.

The origins of the trend marketing department lie in the 2000 restructuring of the company into three divisions: Y-3 for fashion; Originals for reissued classics; and Sports Performance for the cutting edge technology that has long been the adidas benchmark. The change took place to reflect the wider cultural significance the brand had acquired outside sport through the patronage of people including Noel Gallagher, Jamiroquai and Sporty Spice during the Nineties. When Germany decided they needed someone to manage these relationships, Aspden, who had spent a year with adidas putting his bulging contacts book to good use in entertainment promotions, was an obvious choice. Six years later, the respect with which he is held in the industry speaks for his results.

"The idea was to look at ways to communicate the brand to a more fashion-minded, design-orientated consumer," says the 35-year-old from Blackburn, who Drapers Record list among their 100 most influential people in fashion. "I had grown up with the brand, so had that instinctive knowledge that you solely get from being a kid who was prepared to beg, borrow or steal to get the money for a new pair of trainers on a Saturday afternoon. It's an emotional attachment."

Aspden and Mike Chetcuti, who manages the trend marketing side of the operation now that Aspden has been promoted, grew up in the northwest during the Eighties. "In the UK, you've got an adidas culture that hasn't taken place anywhere else on the planet," Aspden explains. "A big one for us is working class youths in the 1980s, who travelled to Europe to get rare adidas trainers. That whole culture means there are shoes that are massively popular in the UK that won't carry the same associations elsewhere. There are cultures that take place outside sport all over the world that adidas are organically and intrinsically linked with, but it's only been in the last few years that the company has taken stock of how they can address that."

Having grown up venerating the adidas brand and its products as football casuals and early hip-hop aficionados, Aspden and Chetcuti are not surprisingly picky about who they choose to work with. "Part of my role is to be the arbiter of what's right and what isn't," says Aspden. "We don't look on it that any publicity is good publicity.We don't need brand awareness. Try to find me a person in the Western world who has not heard of adidas. Our challenge is to look at how we are perceived and to put the right messages out."

A recent example of their selective approach is the collaboration with Missy Elliott, the first lady of hip-hop, on her Respect Me clothing range. Missy had "represented" adidas for years and, through her relationship with Aspden and his team, was introduced to the company's creative director. "We've been approached for financial deals like Missy's by lots of different people but the difference was that Missy had earned her stripes," says Aspden of the company's first financial deal with a recording artiste since the pioneering tie-in with Run DMC in the Eighties. Like a previous collaboration with the cult Japanese fashion label Bathing Ape, the route to Missy's deal started out in the company's Covent Garden office and, more specifically, in Aspden's gift for cultivating and maintaining fruitful working relationships with the right people.

While Aspden is reluctant to take praise for a team effort, Steve Martin, the former head of press for adidas UK, is more forthright, stating Aspden opened up a "whole new world for the product" when he joined the company in 1999. Turnover doubled between 1995 and 1998 as adidas began to strike the balance between sporting credibility and appeal to the youth market but, says Martin, "things went ballistic after that - and Gary was largely responsible. He is genuinely connected and genuinely knows the right people".

It could be argued that Aspden and his colleagues have had a major influence on the restructure and subsequent success of the company. Dividing adidas into three divisions in 2000 was an acceptance that the company meant more than pure sport, even if every one of the reissued items was designed for a specific sporting purpose. The Originals division, which is where the majority of Aspden and Chetcuti's work is focused, now accounts for between 25 and 30 per cent of adidas's global sales and is at the forefront of the company's drive to overhaul Nike in the US.

Aspden, who concedes that his long-standing love of the three stripes and Trefoil means that his approach to the job is tailored exclusively to the brand, says: "We are the only sportswear brand who have been able to acknowledge our wider cultural significance whilst retaining our credibility in sport. We like to work with people who share the same feelings for adidas that we do. The people we choose to align ourselves with must have that same passion."

But quantifying success in terms of sales of product is difficult. "What we do is another segment that makes up the marketing and advertising equity of the brand," says Chetcuti, who also manages ad hoc projects for other heritage brands, such as Dickies and Levis through his own company Magic Bag. "There is always a mechanic in everything we do; an historical, linear progression that always ends up with what's new. One of the great things about adidas is that we're allowed to do what we do. It's a very savvy move by the company."

Aspden is keen to stress that not everything they do is about getting the right clothes on the right celebrities. "We're in a position where we love sport, we love music, clothes, fashion and art," he says. "What we do working with a brand like this is a way of encompassing all those interests without sidelining any of them." And, as if to undermine his last point, Aspden's phone rings. He's got to go - the Beastie Boys are waiting.