Adidas’s Secret Weapon In The Sneaker Wars

Chief marketing officer Eric Liedtke, a 20-plus-year veteran of the company, teamed up with the then-newly promoted global creative director Paul Gaudio in mid-2014 to lead a migration of the creative team from Adidas’s headquarters in the Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach, Germany, to Portland, Oregon—right in Nike’s backyard. While Adidas doesn’t frame it this way explicitly, the company seems to have taken its cue from the market leader. “[The sneaker] industry is born of U.S. culture,” says Gaudio. The U.S., after all, represents 45% of the $55 billion global sneaker market.

Adidas quickly became a transatlantic, co-headquartered brand. Design, advertising, and communications leads were relocated to America, while Germany was tapped to handle materials and manufacturing. “The Americans are better storytellers and, for our industry, have a better aesthetic sense,” Liedtke explains. “The Germans, in broad terms, are very good in engineering, innovations, getting stuff done.”

And that wasn’t the only change. Adidas’s decision-making hierarchy shifted too. In Portland, separate creative silos were established for sports such as football, basketball, and running (again, similar to Nike), allowing teams to develop products tailored to their specific and evolving customers. Both a general manager and a designer sit atop each silo. “If the GMs are driving the car, the creative directors are navigating where to go,” says Liedtke. The groups share core technology, materials, and retail strategy with each other, but with their new autonomy, they’re now able to develop shoes in weeks rather than months.

This speed facilitates the company’s collaborations with outside designers. For more than a decade, Adidas had been exploring creative partnerships with designers such as Yohji Yamamoto and Stella McCartney on high-fashion and fitness lines. But it wasn’t until the company refocused its creative process in the U.S. that it could move with enough speed and authority to make a wider range of collaborations meaningful at scale. Now, Adidas tests the market of a technology—like Ultra Boost—without a celebrity name attached, which takes six months to a year. Then the company brings in a creative partner, such as West, to add a signature touch and make the product line relevant to culture. “Some [sports brands] talk about how hard work equals winning. Some talk about mind over matter,” says Liedtke, in a not-so-veiled nod to Nike and Under Armour campaigns. “We like to talk about imagination—imagining what the future could be.”

Athletes such as the basketball player James Harden and NFL cornerback Marcus Peters remain prominent in Adidas’s marketing. “Everything starts from sport,” says Gaudio. “Without it, we don’t have any lifestyle offerings.” Even so, Adidas’s roster of creative partners is significant, from West and Williams to rapper Pusha T and Belgian fashion designer Kris Van Assche. Williams almost single-handedly brought the company’s 1973 Stan Smith tennis shoe back from retirement when he wore them to the 2015 Grammys and then championed Adidas’s throwback Superstar franchise. His boxy, colorful NMD line is currently Adidas’s most aggressive new look since the Ultra Boosts.

Adidas is also developing a broader creative strategy that goes beyond Portland. This spring, it opened the Brooklyn Farm, a store and creative studio that engages local designers for 10-month-long stints. Gaudio sees the outpost as an opportunity to accelerate product and retail innovation. “It is also about connecting with young creators, startups, students, and influencers,” he says. “It is about getting out of our ivory towers and being on the ground, living and breathing culture and creativity.”

Meanwhile, the company is restructuring again—this time on the manufacturing side. Adidas has already opened an experimental “Speedfactory” in Germany and has a second one planned for Atlanta. The factories treat the shoe as a digital product, deploying new production methods such as motion-capture (to test how new materials respond to movement) and 3D printing. The company plans to produce as many as a million pairs of shoes at Speedfactories by the end of 2018—opening up more potential for creativity, and getting shoes into sneakerheads’ hands even faster.

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