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Reebok President Matt O’Toole On the Pump and the Next Fitness Consumer

Reebok is officially back, but company president Matt O’Toole would be the first to point out that the athletic brand never left the building. Rather, Reebok is the kid who went away to summer camp (intense, no-nonsense Crossfit summer camp) and came back with a cool, can-do attitude.

Revived by its motivational, rally cry “Be More Human” ad campaign that launched this past Super Bowl Sunday, a network of FitHubs that combine community, fitness and retail under one roof, and a growing partnership with the UFC, Reebok is now moving forward by looking back at one of its most iconic innovations, the Pump, for inspiration.

This spring marks the revival of Reebok’s Pump technology, the trend-breaking sneaker construction that put the brand on the performance map over 25 years ago. O’Toole said the new ZPump Fusion, a men’s and women’s running shoe, answers market demand for both nostalgic and high-performance footwear.

“It really cuts both ways,” he said. “There’s a retro aspect to the shoe, but it’s redone in a modern way and it actually has the performance to back it up.”

In 1989, Reebok engineers took three completely unrelated items — a rubber bulb from a blood pressure monitor, an air release valve from a bike tire and an IV bag — and combined them to create a basketball sneaker with customized fit. Coined the Pump, the shoe was scooped up by the likes of nine-time NBA All-Star Dominique Wilkins and then NBA newbie Shaquille O’ Neal. It was celebrated on and off the courts, and was redesigned for tennis, running, aerobics and more.

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Building on that same concept, Reebok has revamped the Pump technology with the ZPump Fusion, a sneaker with a cushion of air inflated by individual pumps that surround the foot, delivering a locked-in feeling though its air-filled cage. Wielding a seamless compression Fusion sleeve for comfort, a Zrated outsole inspired by high-performance Z-rated tires for control, and a signature pump on the outside of the shoe (updated from 1989’s placement on the shoe’s tongue), the sneaker features just three key parts, meaning no rigid components that restrict movement in the foot — a must for a fitness brand on a mission to get people moving.

The ZPump Fusion was two year in the making. O’Toole said the reinvented concept required a completely new process to create, but for Reebok, which is vying to design footwear that motivates humans to test their limitations, instead of creating “beautiful shoes for people to sit on the couch and watch other people [move]” which O’Toole said Reebok’s competitors are great at, the ZPump Fusion was well worth the wait.

Vamp caught of up O’Toole at the worldwide launch of the ZPump Fusion in New York City on Wednesday and asked where he sees new growth opportunities in the athletic market, and which shoes have been getting him through the snowy Massachusetts winter.

Do you get a sense that retailers are rooting Reebok on?
O’Toole: Yes, I think so, but consumer awareness is already there. In terms of brand awareness, Reebok is one of the top three athletic brands worldwide. It’s a big brand name and I think retailers are looking forward to it being back.

What is the biggest, untapped market for retailers?
O’Toole: If you’re a retailer today, you have probably tilted toward female fitness product for an older consumer. Retailers have desired to get a piece of the Lululemon phenomenon, but there is a much younger post-college consumer out there. There’s a female consumer that wants apparel and footwear for Spartan races, as well as meeting friends for brunch. We call that consumer ‘whealthy.’ This consumer’s definition of having riches is having these unique experiences; this is the next group to watch.

Reebok is based just outside of Boston, which is inching closer to breaking snowfall records snowfalls. Which shoes in your closet have been getting you through the winter?
O’Toole: I’m a big crossfitter, so I’ve been wear testing our Nano 5.0, which is about to launch. That’s getting the most use, but on the casual end I’ve been wearing the new Pump.