Book Review – Sneaker Wars by Barbara Smit

Sneaker_wars
My previous class for grad school was “Competitive Intelligence”, in which we were split into groups to take on the job of amassing intelligence for particular industries.  My group chose sports apparel, and I jumped at the chance to do research on Adidas.

I’d always thought of the brand as a cool one, even from my youth when I briefly played soccer.  High school and college often found me in the three stripes.  I realised the brand had reached some very high standing when it was picked up by the Yankees, and when the band Korn offered their own take on the name “Adidas”.

It wasn’t until I researched the company, though, that I realised it was named after its founder, ADI DASsler, and as part of that research, I picked up a book entitled “Sneaker Wars” by Barbara Smit.  I didn’t actually get the chance to read it for the class, but I’ve read it now, and it’s quite a book.

Yogi Berra might say “You’re never impressed with the things you don’t know until you know you know them…” and this book was certainly an eye-opener.  Far more than just a book about sneakers, it details not only the history of Adi Dassler’s company for almost seventy years, it also provides a history of his brother Rudi’s company, Puma, for the same time.  It also takes a look at the sports and sports-marketing industries as they’ve grown from their beginnings over the last half-century.

Starting in World War II Germany with Adi and his brother, the book details their early beginnings and the rift that eventually caused Puma to form in competition with Adidas.  This rift was never healed, and the two brothers remained competitors for their entire lives.  Their families continued the tradition well into the early 2000s, and the book chronicles this through the successes and failures of the particular companies.  Adidas is well-known to have been the more successful (though it certainly had its share of failures), but the book does conclude with the recent successes that both companies have enjoyed, including the significant turn-around that Puma has achieved after it was all but gone in the 70s.

It’s stunning to learn the details behind the various deals that went on in the sports world of the last fifty years.  With back-room deals, envelopes of cash paid to athletes, family squabbles, and corporate upheavals, the book reads almost as if it could easily be adapted for soap opera television.  Not content with merely company history or the dealings of just the sneaker industry, it is also a treatise on the creation of the sports-marketing industry, and a very thorough one at that.  The latter is provided mostly through the lens of the life of Horst Dassler, Adi’s son, who was responsible for a large majority of how sports-marketing is done today.  Rightly painting Horst Dassler as a one-man fire-brand, it shows how he and the companies he formed are largely responsible for much of the marketing and broadcasting we associate with sports today.  It continues past this, and details how the companies we know of today (Adidas, Puma, Nike, Reebok, etc.) have fought their battles in an attempt to gain both market- and mind-share.

Having read this book, I’ll not be able to watch a sporting event in the same way again, now knowing exactly what went into creating those brands and the marketing associated with them.  The author compiled the book over the course of five years, and her writing style takes advantage of the extensive research and obvious access to first-person material.  Well-written, it is an easy and informative read, and allows one to marvel at the intrigue that was present, but largely unknown, in the sports and sports-marketing worlds, and behind some of the most successful brands in history.

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