The rising trend of ‘deadstocking’—hoarding unworn sneakers as trophies—poses a unique challenge in the sportswear industry. Our recent Art of Sway episode delves into this issue and more, featuring a thought-provoking discussion between host Danielle Wiley and Reebok’s Head of Global Brand Strategy, Connor Altier.
They explore Reebok’s innovative approach to challenge a popular narrative among Gen Z, aiming to marry authenticity with influence while promoting responsible consumption. The conversation also touches upon the broader implications of this stance in a market driven by scarcity and hype, and how Reebok is navigating these waters. Danielle and Connor also explore the exciting realm of Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) in the college sports domain, tapping into the potential of micro influencers and local hero athletes.
This episode is a must-listen for anyone intrigued by the evolving dynamics of brand influence and consumer behavior in the sportswear realm! Don’t miss these standout moments:
- How Reebok is melding influence with authenticity in an endeavor to challenge the status quo
- Why so many brands seem to be laser-focused on Gen Z
- What benefits NIL offers brands, particularly in terms of local impact
- Why scarcity drives demand — as well as social currency
- The one note we can all take from “Nike’s playbook”
Episode 45: Connor Altier
Danielle Wiley: Welcome to The Art of Sway, the podcast that uncovers the power of influence and its impact on all areas of our lives. I’m your host, Danielle Wiley. Each week we’ll explore the many facets of influence through candid conversations with industry insiders, from brand marketers to social workers, educators, leaders, and more. Let’s dive in. Connor Altier is currently the head of brand strategy at Reebok. Before his tenure at Reebok, he worked at the Boston Consulting Group in their fashion and luxury practice working on various transformation and brand elevation cases. Connor’s journey at Reebok has taken him through a variety of unique experiences, including the sale of the brand and the development of the future of the brand under their new ownership. Currently, Connor is heavily engaged with both the creative and strategic direction of the brand. This includes Reebok’s new direction back into sports, the inroads they’re making to engage with youth culture and the development of a new creative ethos.
In his spare time, Connor is an avid Crossfitter, enjoys being a New York sports fan in New England and spending time with his friends and family. Talking to Connor, it was so much fun. I love getting a bird’s eye view of how marketing is approached at such a well-known and established brand that is in the process of a massive reinvention. We also were able to touch on generational differences in brand perception, which continues to be one of my favorite topics. Enjoy.
Hi. Well, welcome to the podcast. It’s so great to have you on. I was so excited to just have been introduced to you and I’m very excited to be talking to you today.
Connor Altier: Thank you. Thank you. Really appreciate it. Happy to be here.
Danielle Wiley: Your job is really cool and I feel like I’m using the word excited and exciting a lot today, but it is an exciting job. I’d love for you to share with our listeners just your journey and how you got to where you are today.
Connor Altier: Well, that could be an episode in and of itself, but I’ll take the abridged version. I started my career in consulting and when I was coming out of college, I was a marketing major and I knew I wasn’t so interested in how I’m like, what exactly we post on social media or how much advertising we were buying? I was more interested in some of the bigger moves that companies make to win. That led me down the management consulting track. That then led me down a path of I was really interested in luxury and fashion. Then about 20 months into that experience, I really wanted to marry that with some of my personal interests, which is sportswear brands, and I’m a big Crossfitter, so I was like, fitness and wellness.
And an opportunity came about at Reebok and I jumped ship from BCG over to Reebok. It was a bit of a leap of faith because I came in at entry level. So definitely it was a risk financially, for sure, but it all worked out. In my time there, within my first six months of being there, our team had gone through some shifts. I very quickly went from entry level duties of sending out newsletters and stuff like that to working on five-year strategy for the brand with our C-level executives. So my job pivoted very, very quickly. From there, once that was all settled, that new five-year strategy that I got engaged with, we got engaged with the process of selling the brand, which was a whole other beast in and of itself.
Then there was also the whole component of running a brand. Obviously in sportswear, it’s a fashion adjacent industry, so we’re thinking about what does the brand stand for this season? What are we creating? What trends are influencing consumers? How do we play into that? How do we make the brand relevant for consumers in those moments in time? All with the backdrop of this divestiture and five-year strategy going on. From there, once the brand was sold, I started working very closely with our chief of product, Todd Krinsky at the time. I was working in strategy and being Todd’s chief of staff, I got very familiar with product, very familiar with the creation process and how consumers are influenced by certain trends, how product manifests that, but also just running the day-to-day business of how much do you cost a shoe, et cetera, all the way. Then roll the clock forward to July of last year. This is one of my favorite stories. I get a text from Todd on a Friday going-
Danielle Wiley: And Todd is the CEO of Reebok.
Connor Altier: We’re not there in the story yet, but I got-
Danielle Wiley: Some guy named Todd.
Connor Altier: Todd, the chief of product that I was chief of staff to, I got a text from him on Friday. He was like, “Hey, you working on Monday?” I was like, “Yeah, why?” He said, “What’s halfway between your house and my house? Randolph, Massachusetts?” I was like, “We doing a drug drop? What are we doing, man? What’s going on?” And he was like, “Meet me in the Panera in Randolph at 9:00 AM.” I was like, “Okay.” So he shows up, he’s got this big stack of blank computer paper and this one book, this book called The Advantage. It’s by Ray Lencioni. Making sure. Yeah, it’s by Lencioni. It’s on my bookshelf back there. And he was like, “Connor, if we were to do this thing over with a new strategy and everything like that, new company, how would we do it?” I was like, “Whoa.” There was two things became very apparent to me, that one, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the course and the trajectory of this brand with our new owners.
And then two, this guy stepping in as CEO. So now from there, it was all about creating this new company of Reebok underneath our parent company and this strategy that’s built to bring the brand back to its rightful place in the industry. From there it’s just been, I’m a small but mighty team, but it’s been about getting all the checklist of the strategy in place to be able to get this brand back to what it was before Adidas bought us. That takes me to where I am today, which is really focused on marketing right now. It’s kind of serendipitous that we’re having this conversation and things I’m thinking about on a daily basis is how do we influence consumers? How do we think about, from a marketing lens, what truly moves the needle? How do we get more relevant with a Gen Z audience? Because generations are very different and all the data shows that we have the farthest ground to go with Gen Z right now. That’s kind of my world right now. That’s the story. That’s how I got to where I am.
Danielle Wiley: Awesome. In the middle of that story, you mentioned creating a 5-year plan, and that’s a phrase that strikes fear in my heart every time I hear it because I feel like it’s something that any CEO should be able to… What’s your five-year plan? What’s your 10-year plan? It’s something you hear a lot, yet as an influencer marketing agency CEO, it’s very, very difficult to think that far ahead. Last year at this time, I actually just looked at a proposal from last August and it had Twitter in it. That’s not a thing. It kind of exists in some form, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a client at this point. Platforms change, threads didn’t exist at that point. Will threads even be around in six months, let alone five years? And I know that it’s a little bit unique for us because we work specifically within that social media space, but certainly for everyone doing marketing, things are changing at a rapid pace. So how do you approach that five-year plan in a world that’s just evolving, feels like, every minute?
Connor Altier: It’s a really good question and I think in my role I have to be very comfortable with ambiguity, and the key to that is it’s about you got to be a little bit comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s funny because doing this process right now with how we want the US commercial strategy to come to life within the US specifically, you’ve got to be comfortable putting a marker out and then understanding what needs to be true to get there. And it’s not to say that we have every detail of every little thing we’re going to do year by year by year, but it’s understanding if I have a vision, if I look at the landscape and I see a gap in the market, it’s understanding how am I going to put, where do I put this flagpole? And then what are the load-bearing structures that need to be true to get there?
It starts super broad and it starts big, with an ambition, and that ambition becomes a mission over these courses of time, and you need those guiding principles that are going to get you there. So for us, I tend to fall back on frameworks for that. What needs to be true from a product perspective, what needs to be true from a marketing perspective, what needs to be true from a distribution perspective? You just start to break it down in different ways and what goes underneath that is really the enablers that enable you to do the things that you want to do. So a good example of that is, say from a marketing lens, it’s got to be what we know is if our ambition is to really get this brand back to its rightful place and this cool irreverent brand, and I can talk about that a little bit later, from a marketing lens, what needs to be true?
No matter what’s going on in the marketing landscape, it’s got to be grounded, authentic, real content that’s engaging with Gen Z. That’s what we know is engaging with them, whether it’s TikTok or some incumbent platform that’s coming up, we know we need people and we need the infrastructure in place to be able to be agile enough to get after some of that more real, authentic content that’s going to get to those consumers. A great strategy is one that is a frame. You’re not telling people what to do, you’re giving people the tools to be able to make decisions within the framework. I think that’s the best way to think about it. I think there’s so much pressure these days, and I think this is a societal pressure that we all need to have the answers at every second of every day, and that’s just not the case. That’s not how good strategy works.
I get a lot of my influence from the military, and that’s not how the military works. Of course, everyone thinks about the military is super rigid and super do, do, do, but there’s a chain of command that happens that when you go up to the grand strategy level, what the generals are talking about, they’re not telling people boots on the ground what to do. That’s their job, to figure that out within that scope. I think with strategy, there’s just a way to do it and within a 5-year plan, you just got to think it’s going to be an ambition up here, but then you get more tactical as you go. And on the roadmap of that five years, year one is going to be way more detailed than year four is going to be. But as you get closer, it gets more and more filled out.
Danielle Wiley: When I think about what our strategies are, those have really been the same since day one. And when you’re thinking from a strategic kind of up high perspective, it is easier to look farther ahead and envision where you’re going to be. I think it’s when it comes to those tactics, it can feel a little bit scary to say, “Okay, well, the strategy is that it doesn’t matter what the tactics… We’re going to be adjusting the tactics the whole time because we have to fit within the strategic framework and the way we do that is going to keep changing. We know that that’s a definite.” I think it’s interesting, and I find it’s sometimes hard on teams to help, especially junior employees, understand the difference between strategies and tactics. And when you’re brainstorming and thinking about the future and planning out the years ahead, it can be hard to get people focused at a higher level, because it’s oftentimes easier to come up with those small tactical ideas.
Connor Altier: It’s funny, as you rise through your career, naturally your job becomes a little bit less operational and you become more strategic in nature. Now, I’ve had the beauty of my career, and maybe it’s a gap in my career that I’ve been mostly strategic in my career, but by trade I’m a strategist. I think it’s just by nature, it’s just really hard to flip between those two frames of mind, as you said. There need to be dreamers in business and there need to be operators in business. And I think that’s understanding when that needs to be deployed. Now, when your leaders are operators all the time, that can be a little bit of a problem. And also when your operators are all dreamers, that’s also a problem. It’s just about having the right mix.
Danielle Wiley: The dreamer versus you op, would’ve loved a conversation I had a few days ago, I was interviewing someone else for this season and she specializes in personality testing for business leaders. And we had this great conversation about activators versus achievers because I’m an activator and I’m like, “Okay, I know what needs to be done. Here’s the big plan.” But when it comes to actually being in the trenches, I’m definitely more of a dreamer than an operator. We were just talking about the importance of having both of those.
Connor Altier: Of course, of course. You need them, you need them. And it’s funny, some leaders, I know when I think about literally our business operations leaders, by nature, they’re a little bit less dreamers, but that’s the nature of their role. They’re literally like, “How do we get product from the factory over to our warehouses?” Of course, you’re going to be a little more operationally minded.
Danielle Wiley: One of the things I’m really interested in, especially since you’re rebuilding this brand, and it’s a brand that I have so many fond memories of Reebok. It’s been in my life since I was a kid, but how do you think that the role of brands in consumers lives have changed over time? And I’m particularly interested in if you see any difference generationally? Like me as a Gen X-er who had my Reebok high tops for doing aerobics and love them so much with the two Velcro straps at the top.
Connor Altier: Freestyle.
Danielle Wiley: Yup. Versus my Gen Z kids who are waiting for shoe drops, and their interaction, especially with sportswear, is just so different from my generations. I’m curious how you navigate that and how you appeal to Gen Z without losing my generation who actually has all the money right now.
Connor Altier: I think that’s really interesting, and I think the way we navigate, because really Gen X and even millennials, I’m a millennial myself, I’m super nostalgia driven. Anytime I see a SpongeBob thing on my feed, I just light up. That’s nostalgia from my childhood. I think what’s really interesting is that Gen Z is much less brand… They’ll switch brands, which is really interesting because they’re open to other brands fulfilling certain needs in their life. I’m a firm believer that everything is needs state driven, and when I think about generations, I think Gen Z, from everything that’ve read and everything I’ve observed, they’re, rightfully so, the most uncertain about life right now in general. They’re looking for stabilization, they’re looking for things that are certain. So they’re looking for things that, for them, certainty is a little bit different than what it might be for millennials or Gen Z, or Gen X, excuse me.
So millennials and Gen X are a little bit more open to nostalgia. That to them, that’s what stability might be. But for Gen Z, it’s more about, how does this fit an authentic role in my life? Is this something my peers are wearing? Because what we found through our research is that Gen Z is most influenced by their immediate peers. We’re relaunching back into basketball as a brand, and we know that’s a Gen Z game right now. And what’s not driving kids is the LeBron James dunking ads. Those shoes aren’t even selling that well. What’s really influencing kids right now are the kids that are in their local communities that are on overtime elite, the ones that they know are balling in their general area. So for us, it’s about how do you get in?
I think we’re going to talk about NIL in a little bit, but that’s why NIL has become so important. It’s such an opportunity for that younger generation because it allows you to get super local super fast and enable… There’s a level of authenticity of if I have a level of proximity to this thing, because everything’s so viral now in Gen Z, it’s like, “Oh, I know that person from TikTok. Oh, I know that person. I know that person from TikTok.” That is so much more relevant for them.
Now, for a Gen X-er and a millennial, nostalgia is important because those are the generations that we have the most equity with. But it’s also about fulfilling a specific need within the market. And the thing that’s really interesting right now is, with everyone kind of looking for certainty right now, I think it’s really interesting how On and Hoka have taken off because they’re both, the markers of certainty is… We have so many crappy brands that have entered the space. Everyone’s inundated with choices. But if you go to a footwear wall and you look at the wall and you see Hoka and On next to some of the other competitors, there’s such a distinct difference in how they even look. You’ve got On with the jagged geometry and you’ve got Hoka with the maximalist cushioning. You look at those shoes and you’re like, “Oh, they must do something unique with that visual language.”
It’s funny, I was actually in Paris last week and I saw On and Hoka everywhere, but it was mainly millennial slash Gen X, which was really interesting. They’re at that higher price point, but they are signaling certainty in a different way. You know what I mean? I think it all comes back to people are inundated with so many choices nowadays, and that certainty can come through a couple of different… People want a level of certainty when they’re buying. They’re looking for that certainty in a couple of different ways. Gen X and millennials, a little bit more nostalgia driven, maybe a little bit more visual ID driven. Gen Z way more about, well, if my peers are doing it, I’ve got to do it.
Danielle Wiley: You think there’s something for Gen Z too with the scarcity? Just having a son who will actually purchase a shoe during math class because it’s dropping, he doesn’t want to miss out.
Connor Altier: Wow.
Danielle Wiley: Still [inaudible] so I don’t complain too much.
Connor Altier: I think what’s really interesting is what we’ve been seeing is there’s a little bit of backlash against that right now that’s starting to swing the other way.
Danielle Wiley: Good.
Connor Altier: We have an interesting kind of ad, or not ad, but we had a concept that we were running with, with shoes that were made to be worn. Because so many of these kids are just buying these shoes and they’re just dead stocking them. And part of that is Gen Z more than any other generation is more aware of the impact on the environment that that has. How much more wasteful can you be buying shoes not even to wear them? For us, we were all about, all right, well, our classics are made to be worn. Your Club Cs look better when they have little bit of character to them. When you’ve got that little bit of a stain on the outsole, there’s a story associated with that.
There’s a bit of a backlash coming against that. Of course hype and every Yeezy drop sells out to the pair. Of course there’s a level of an ego piece, thing going on there. It’s like a commodity. If I have this commodity that’s been driven up in value due to scarcity, and I can show that on my TikTok, if I can show that on my Instagram, of course it’s going to be… It’s almost social currency, to some degree. But that’s starting to come in conflict with some of these values of sustainability that we’re starting to see a lot more in the younger generations.
Danielle Wiley: That’s fascinating. I love that. I’m excited to see that concept come to life more. It-
Connor Altier: It’s interesting too, because sustainability, people aren’t just thinking about carbon emissions. It’s also consuming less, and it’s thinking about durable products and products that… A great piece that’s going to last me a really long time. I’m a firm believer that’s why Lululemon’s probably is done pretty well, because I remember when I first was buying it, I was like, “Oh, I can have this shirt for five years. Why do I need to buy a million of those vent tees?” I don’t know. It’s just one of those things where that thought on over consumption is kind of making its way out.
Danielle Wiley: You touched on NIL a little bit, but let’s talk about it some more. I’d love to hear how Reebok has jumped into the NIL space. Any plans you have for the future and just what your thoughts are about it in general?
Connor Altier: NIL, it’s fascinating. Growing up, I was a college athlete myself, and I went to… Lacrosse players aren’t getting NIL deals, at least back then, but just knowing I went to Providence College and knowing some of the guys on either the hockey or the basketball team, what they could have done with something like that. Particularly like a Chris Dunn that graduated a year before me. But I don’t know, it’s an interesting concept, particularly for us as we’re getting back into sports.
The big thing for us with Reebok, when we were owned by Adidas, Adidas wanted us to be the fitness brand, which is why you saw us be super in depth with CrossFit and Spartan races and all that. And Adidas was the sports brand, and they were like, “You stay over here, we’re over here. We’re going to be a great happy family portfolio company.” Now, the problem was Reebok means so much more than just fitness to so many consumers. When we say getting the brand back to its rightful place, we mean we got to get back into sports. We’re known as a global sportswear brand, we got to get back in there. But we have the golden opportunity to get back into the space in a really new and meaningful way. So for example, if you saw Allbirds come out with a basketball shoe, you’d be like, “Hmm, okay.”
Danielle Wiley: No thanks.
Connor Altier: We have the authenticity and the credibility to just leapfrog that barrier to entry. Now with that, comes incredible responsibility. And what is going to influence consumers now, and I touched on it earlier, NIL, you can get super local with it. Because the deals, some of the mega deals like Olivia Dunn, they’re going to be astronomical. Almost as much as signing some of the top tier NBA players. But it’s an opportunity to get super local and really connect with those players on a local level. If you want to drive influence in specific areas of the country, it’s another avenue there. For us in our industry, it’s so driven on collaborated product. So you’ve got your LeBrons, your Kobe shoes, you have your Kanye shoes, et cetera. I’m interested to see where that goes. Would anyone take a swing and give a college athlete an NIL deal, a signature shoe? That would be really interesting.
Now we have a couple of irons in the fire. Not necessarily at liberty to talk about them quite yet, but what’s really interesting as well is college campuses are such a breeding ground for style as well. I’m interested to see not just sportswear brands, but also other brands of can… Even I think luxury brands should try to start doing it as well. I think that that could be a really interesting avenue for getting consumers in young. I think nowadays a note we can all take out of Nike’s playbook is that they are always thinking about priming the next generation of consumers and thinking, no matter how young, you need to start building that credibility with consumers. I think even luxury consumers are not going to necessarily be college students at that time, but priming that generation as they get older, to age with the brand. You got to be thinking about that lifetime value with consumers. And we know luxury brands are not allergic to spending, so even if it doesn’t pay off right now-
Danielle Wiley: Well, it’s so interesting to me because I live in Ann Arbor and I go to the football, the hockey, and then some of the wrestling matches, and those kids are royalty around here, and they’re luxury. Blake Corrum on our football team was, well, it got stolen, but was driving around in a Porsche. They aren’t your typical college students, and there is so much local influence there. And to your point about the lacrosse, one of the things I think a lot of brands are missing out on in NIL are those micro ones. I think some of those smaller sports, there is a lot of influence and there is a strong following, especially among other college students, even if they’re not a super well-known athlete who’s on ESPN, who you’re watching every weekend on TV. I do think that there is this huge untapped micro influencer opportunity within the NIL space that not many brands are tapping into yet.
Connor Altier: I agree. And I think on a micro level, it allows you to really fine tune the associations with your brand. I can imagine. I don’t want to throw lacrosse as a sport under the bus, but to say it’s growing I don’t think will be controversial.
Danielle Wiley: My son played. It’s okay.
Connor Altier: You can imagine a brand like Birddogs, for example, which I think is a very bro-ey brand, could do some interesting NIL stuff with some lacrosse players or something like that. There’s the ability to drill down to the micro level and fine tune those associations with the brand, and that is what’s moving the needle now. I think a lot of consumers are very pessimistic, or skeptical rather, of some of these big macro influencers and big mega stars, like global megastars. I saw something in Business of Fashion a couple of weeks ago. Adidas spent so much to get Jenna Ortega on board with them. It hasn’t really done much. And I think she’s great. I think she’s a wonderful actress, but it’s not swaying people. It’s not the thing that’s going to drive relevance.
Danielle Wiley: She’s not who I think of for my sportswear recommendations. I don’t know, maybe black eyeliner would’ve been more appropriate as a sponsor for her.
Connor Altier: Put her in all black and put her in black Sambas and then we’re talking, but it’s been all soccer. What does she have to do with soccer?
Danielle Wiley: [inaudible]. I have so many other questions, but I know we’re coming up on time. We ask everyone the same question at the end of the podcast just because as an influencer marketing agency, we kind of have to go there. But what was the last thing that you personally were influenced to either buy, watch, read, or listen to?
Connor Altier: Hmm. I was looking at this question when you sent it through, so I’ve done some thinking on it. I think for me it was interesting, and it was in Paris last week, which is big metropolitan city and they’re overstimulated with everything going on. You’ve got the Louvre and everything like that. But I think what was really interesting was, obviously it’s the headquarters of Louis Vuitton and everything like that, but I think I’m not a big person who likes to walk into stores and just go and explore, but the presentation of the Louis Vuitton stores there was just immaculate. Just the way it was done, the presentation, everything felt so authentic and so buttoned up. I think for me, it’s about brand identity, and I think it’s about having that novel brand experience that really drives me.
I think that that was, for me, being someone in a new city… We have a Louis Vuitton store here in the mall, in the Prudential Center in Boston, so I can go see Louis Vuitton any day of the week. Not to say that I’m going to buy something, but I’m not even that consumer and I gravitated towards it. And there were tons of other brands. There was Cartier, there was all these other luxury brands, but there was something about the way they presented it because it was so true to the Parisian aesthetic there. There was just this level of authenticity that just drew me in. I think about that, and from a macro sense, that’s always what draws me in. When something is authentic, when something is true to its brand, heritage and roots, and is clear on who it’s supposed to be, that always draws me in.
Danielle Wiley: We walked into a Louis Vuitton store around the holidays and my son went straight to the sneakers. They’re so cool.
Connor Altier: They are.
Danielle Wiley: They have those there? They’re beautiful.
Connor Altier: Yes, yes. They’re gorgeous. Good thing they’re not in the same price range as us. We’d be in trouble.
Danielle Wiley: And he’s 17, so I was “Back away from the shoes. Not happening, Bubba.” Well, awesome. This was so great. Thank you so much for joining me. I had so much fun chatting with you.
Connor Altier: This has been fantastic. Thank you so much for having me.
Danielle Wiley: Thank you for listening. Don’t forget to like, share and subscribe. Please check back next Monday for a new episode featuring candid conversations that explore the power of influence. I am your host, Danielle Wiley, and this is The Art of Sway.