The viral marketer has no clothes

If a company is looking to market a new line of shoes, a well-known brand with a big-name, marketable athlete to back it makes a nice start. So, too, does a flashy, inspirational commercial, a print ad campaign and billboards splattered around major metropolises.

Or you could just put a video clip on the Internet of Chuck Liddell working out naked while wearing those shoes.

Why, that's what Reebok did last week. And it's a strategy that, for now, appears to be working.

First, a step back. Adidas acquired Reebok in 2005 with the goal of combining to challenge Nike. Yet those hopes weren't realized, namely because adidas soon discovered Reebok had no proprietary assets. Translation: Reebok had no new products or ideas to develop.

As such, the Reebok brand has effectively lain dormant for years.

"Reebok was as dead as dead could be," Darren Rovell, CNBC's sports business reporter, said in a phone interview Wednesday.

But Reebok is slowly creeping back into the public consciousness, thanks to some slick new shoes -- the EasyTone, which is marketed at women looking to tone their bodies, and the ZigTech, a so-called revolutionary shoe that the company said causes 20 percent less wear and tear on leg muscles -- and the help of some Web buzz.

Back to the Liddell video.

On Feb. 25, a video of Liddell and his girlfriend, Heidi Northcott, working out in the buff -- their naughty bits were blurred out -- popped up online. Its voyeuristic style of camerawork led some to believe an outsider had filmed them unknowingly. But in the wee hours of the morning TMZ had the dirt: It was a viral video for the ZigTech shoe, which drops March 11 and retails for $100. A closer look at the video reveals they're wearing nothing else but the Reeboks. But Liddell has claimed it's real, and Reebok has remained mostly mum, adding to the intrigue.

"Jimmy Kimmel Live" made mention of the video. It's gotten plenty of Twitter and viral buzz.

And Reebok has also aligned itself with one of the biggest Internet memes of the past few months -- the eccentric cast of MTV's "Jersey Shore" -- as "The Situation" and Pauly D hung around with Eli Manning and Chad Ochocinco, among others, during Super Bowl weekend and were captured on video to promote the ZigTech shoe.

Wednesday, a video of Ochocinco popped up online, shot in a similar style to Liddell's. He was running naked. In a forest. With the ZigTech shoes on his feet.

And the EasyTone -- Rovell notes the toning-shoe market, which seeks to tone your body from just walking, was $300 million last year and is projected to be a $1 billion market this year -- is no stranger to blogs, Twitter and Facebook streams. But not always flattering.

The more traditional ad campaign from this past fall, which revolved around the actors-models in the television commercials and print ads showing off their um, assets, drew the ire of woman-centric content providers, yet the commercials got a good viral run on the Web as well.

Gawker Media's influential blog, Jezebel, called the ads "horrendous," saying they displayed "blatant objectification of women" and even tossed out something no brand or person wants to be labeled online: an "epic fail."

So has Reebok -- which acoording to a Rovell story on CNBC.com saw a 4 percent uptick in sales in the fourth quarter, its first positive uptick since adidas acquired it -- damaged its brand in the long term by trying to create buzz in the short term? Or was the company in such a position that it could take risks to at least be in the conversation and be relevant again, whether good or bad?

"There's nothing negative," said Rovell. "The most damaging thing is that you don't exist, which is where they've been for 4 years. The clutter is bigger and bigger, so to be relevant, it's harder. Companies have to consider doing stuff like this. Nike is really great with viral stuff. It's not only about investing in an ad, it's about investing in viral. Which often cost less, and can get you just as much or more of a buzz."

Rovell also said he's surprised Reebok isn't pushing the innovative technology behind the ZigTech, because the company also has a good product to go along with this strong viral push.

Joshua Benton, the Director of Harvard University's Nieman Journalism Lab, notes that a brand can benefit from negative press, so long as they're relatively unknown.

"The only case where negative press can be good press is when you are a brand that wants to draw attention -- you're an unknown brand, and the controversy around something can be something that can draw support," he said.

Reebok certainly met this criteria a few months back, as they rode some controversy to become part of the conversation once again. But with two good products and some viral buzz, it's a relevant brand once more.

Ryan Corazza is a freelance writer and Web designer based in Chicago.