The Seeds Of A Brand Loyalty

Originally posted April 1, 2009

On April 1, 1974, thirty-five years ago today, I was playing hooky in a big way. In fact, I was starting my second week of hooky from St. Cloud State’s classes in Fredericia, Denmark. Spring quarter had started Monday, March 25. Sunrise that day had found me in a youth hostel in Zermatt, Switzerland, looking out of the window at the Matterhorn. I knew it was the first day of class, but I also knew I had yet to travel through Switzerland and Austria to Vienna and I had yet to see Munich in what was then West Germany.

It wasn’t a tough choice. So a week later, on April 1, I was in Munich, standing in a square to watch the town hall tower’s ancient glockenspiel chime the hour. As I stood and waited for the top of the hour – ten o’clock, I believe – I saw one of my fellow St. Cloud State students, DJ, whom I’d not seen for nearly four weeks, since a raucous few days in Paris. He grinned and we caught up with each other as we waited. At ten o’clock, the bells in the tower chimed, and colorful carved figures danced and jousted.

The crowd thinned, and I turned to DJ. “So what are you gonna do now?” I asked.

“I’m heading to the Hofbräuhaus for lunch,” he said, “and then I’m heading back to Fredericia, but I’m going to visit a shoe factory along the way.”

A shoe factory?

He grinned and said he was heading for the world headquarters of adidas, the company whose shoes bore a distinctive three stripes.

I knew the shoes. I’d wanted a pair for years and, finally, for Christmas 1971, my folks gave me a pair: blue with the three stripes in white. I loved those shoes, and I wore them out. Then I bought another pair to bring with me to Denmark. I don’t think I was wearing them the day I ran into DJ, as I’d left Fredericia for spring break in early March, and it was still a bit chilly to wear the adidas shoes every day.

We went to the Hofbräuhaus, where we ate some baked liver loaf and each had a couple of beers. After we ate, we found an unattended door on the building’s lower level, and we each sneaked out with one of the Hofbräuhaus’ distinctive gray mugs, repeating an act of larceny committed by thousands of others over the years. From there, we went to the train station and headed to Nuremberg.

As we rode, DJ explained. The adidas company had its headquarters in a small town called Herzogenaurach. We’d have to take a train from Nuremberg to a city called Fürth, and there, we’d have to catch a train to a station called Erlangen-Bruck, near the smaller city of Erlangen. There, finally, we would catch a train that brought us to Herzogenaurach. Our goal, DJ said, was to get a tour of the factory and the company’s shoe museum.

As DJ had planned, our fourth train of the afternoon brought us into Herzogenaurach, but it was mid-afternoon by that time. “We might be too late,” he said, as we hurried down the street. I saw a sign in the street, like a traffic sign. One portion of the sign pointed to the right, and showed “adidas” and the familiar trefoil logo. The other portion pointed left, and read “PUMA” with the also familiar leaping cat. As we headed to the right, I asked DJ, “Puma and adidas?”

He nodded as we hurried, and between breaths, he told me that the companies had been started by feuding brothers, Adolf and Rudolf Dassler, in the years after World War II. Adolf had used his nickname, Adi, and the first three letters of his last name to brand his shoes: adidas. Rudolf had chosen Puma as his brand name, and the headquarters for both brands were located in Herzogenaurach, a city that in 1974 had a population of around 15,000, maybe a little less.

We made our way through town to a group of buildings at the edge of town, with the most modern of them marked “adidas.” We went to that one, and at the door, DJ explained our mission. Eventually, the doorkeeper went away and brought back a man who was maybe in his forties, wearing a conservative coat and tie. He looked at the two of us, with our longish, untrimmed hair, and told us he was sorry, the factory was closed and it was too late to get a tour. He gave each of us his card and said that if we could come back early in the morning on a Thursday or a Friday . . .

Disappointed, DJ and I walked back into the center of the small town and went to the adidas factory outlet. He bought shoes and an athletic bag; I bought a t-shirt. And we headed back, via Erlangen-Bruck and Fürth, to Nuremberg, where we caught a train that would take us to Hamburg in northern West Germany. From there, it was only a few hours to Fredericia. We got home about mid-day on April 2, a week and a day late for class.

(We weren’t the only ones to be late for spring classes, nor were we the last ones back from spring break: Many of us had missed at least some class time that spring quarter, and a few others straggled in after DJ and I got back to Fredericia. I’ve mentioned before, I think, that our time in Denmark was St. Cloud State’s first attempt at a foreign study program, and although the administration had anticipated some absenteeism, our behavior at the beginning of the spring quarter was more widespread and blatant than expected. From then on, in all of St. Cloud State’s foreign study programs, an extended absence required a good reason. Those students without good reasons, I think, were sent back to the States. And I’m pretty sure that, “But I hadn’t been to Vienna yet!” wouldn’t have been a good enough reason.)

A couple of days later, I got a letter from a gal I’d met in Vienna who was studying in Poitiers, France, inviting me to visit for Easter, if my rail pass was still good. It was, and train schedules were good enough to allow me to get there, spend two days, and get back to Fredericia without missing any school.

In fact, I thought, as I looked at maps and train schedules, I could leave Wednesday afternoon and head south to Munich – where there was a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci that I’d not seen while I was there – and then take a Thursday night train to Paris. I could still get into Poitiers on Friday, which is what my lady friend had suggested. I looked at my adidas shirt drying on the radiator and thought a little more.

And at 7:30 in the morning on April 11, a Thursday, I presented myself at the main building of the adidas shoe company. I gave the doorman the business card I’d gotten during my previous visit, and waited. The conservatively dressed fellow came to the door and did a double-take when he saw me. I reminded him that he’d essentially promised a tour if we came back early on a Thursday or a Friday. He nodded, smiling tightly, and escorted me into the building. He handed me off to a junior somebody, who took me around the factory and then through a small museum, where I saw – among other things – adidas shoes that had been used by Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali. I left the factory after about an hour, impressed with what I’d seen and carrying a bag of key chains and other trinkets, all marked “adidas.”

And this may be silly, but since that day, I’ve never worn a shirt or jacket or anything that displays the brand name of another shoe company. No Nike shirts or caps, no Puma, no New Balance, no Air Jordan. I’ve not always had sports shoes, but when I have, they’ve been adidas. I have several shirts with the adidas logo and none displaying any other shoe brand’s logo. I have a small collection of baseball caps, most of them displaying the logos of various athletic teams . . . and three with the adidas logo.

As I said, that brand loyalty might be kind of silly. I’m not an athlete, never really have been. But that loyalty satisfies something in me, and that’s all that matters.

A Six-Pack From The Charts (Billboard Hot 100, March 30, 1974)
“Dancing Machine” by the Jackson 5, Motown 1286 (No. 40)
“On A Night Like This” by Bob Dylan, Asylum 11033 (No. 51)
“Star Baby” by the Guess Who, RCA Victor 0217 (No. 54)
“Mighty Mighty” by Earth, Wind & Fire, Columbia 46007 (No. 64)
“Watching The River Run” by Loggins & Messina, Columbia 46010 (No. 73)
“La Grange” by ZZ Top, London 203 (No. 97)

I don’t recall hearing any of these at the time. Readers might recall my mentioning the tape machine in the lounge of the youth hostel where I was living during the early months of 1974: We listened mostly to the Allman Brothers, the first Duane Allman anthology and Pink Floyd, with Graham Nash, the occasional slice of Bread and a few others being dropped in for variety. Radios were scarce at the hostel, and Top 40 was hard to come by.

Though I’m sure I’ve heard “Dancing Machine” before I ripped it from one of the Texas Gal’s CDs this week, I couldn’t tell you when. My tolerance for the Jackson 5 has been limited for years to “ABC,” “I Want You Back” and “Never Can Say Goodbye.” I don’t think “Dancing Machine” is quite up to the level of those, but it’s a pretty good, propulsive track, better than I thought it would be when I first chose it for this selection. The record went to No. 2 on the pop chart and spent a week at No. 1 on the R&B chart, the last Jackson 5 record to climb so high on either chart.

When listeners dropped “On A Night Like This” on the turntable, they were hearing something that hadn’t been available on record before except on bootlegs: Bob Dylan in the recording studio with The Band. The single was the first track from Planet Waves, which surprisingly – given their long association – was the first album that found all five members of The Band in the studio with Dylan. (The facsinating Basement Tapes, showing what Dylan and the five members of The Band had been up to during Dylan’s recovery from a motorcycle accident, would come out in 1975.) A rollicking and grinning piece of Americana (long before, as I said the other day, that term was applied to popular music), the single nevertheless failed to reach the Top 40; by the end of March, it had been in the Hot 100 for six weeks and had peaked at No. 44. By April 6, the record had fallen out of the Hot 100.

For about two-and-a-half years, between early 1969 and the late summer of 1971, the Guess Who – a group out of Manitoba, Canada – had been a reliable hit-making machine, putting eleven singles into the Top 40, with five of them reaching the Top Ten. (The most successful of them, “American Woman,” spent three weeks at No. 1 in the spring of 1970.) In the spring of 1974, the Guess Who broke a three-year absence in the Top 40, as “Star Baby” – a catchy piece of radio pop – slid into the pop chart. As March ended, the record was on its way up, moving to No. 54 from No. 63. Three weeks later, “Star Baby” poked its head into the Top 40, sitting at No. 39 for two weeks before tumbling back down the chart. The Guess Who had two more hits in 1974 – “Clap For The Wolfman” went to No. 6 and “Dancin’ Fool” went to No. 28 – and then disappeared from the Top 40 for good.

From 1974 into the early 1980s, Chicago-based Earth, Wind & Fire released a series of catchy singles that laced R&B with funk and the occasional tender ballad. That brought the group – formed and led by drummer Maurice White – sixteen Top 40 hits, seven of which reached the Top Ten. One of those, “Shining Star” spent a week at No. 1 on the pop charts; seven of the group’s hits were No. 1 on the R&B chart. That string began with “Mighty Mighty” in 1974. During the week in question, “Mighty Mighty” was at No. 64 and was heading up the chart towards its peak of No. 29. All together, the song – a potent slice of radio R&B – spent fifteen weeks in the Hot 100.

It’s interesting that Loggins & Messina included “Watching The River Run” on their 1976 anthology, The Best of Friends, as the song got no further up the Hot 100 than No. 71 in a six-week run. But then, Loggins & Messina only had three Top 40 hits, which would make for a pretty skimpy anthology. And “Watching The River Run” is a good choice, maybe the quintessential Loggins & Messina track: melodic and mellow with a lyric that tells us that we’re all part of something sweet and good, something that will go one when we no longer do.

The growling, nearly incomprehensible lyrics of ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” combined with the record’s Texas-style boogie, nearly got ZZ Top into the Top 40. “La Grange” crawled slowly up the chart after its March 30 debut, eventually reaching No. 41 in the last week of June 1974 and the falling out of the Hot 100 a month later after a nineteen-week run. Starting with “Tush” in the summer of 1975, ZZ Top would eventually have eight Top 40 hits, with two of them – “Legs” and “Sleeping Bag” – reaching the Top Ten in the mid-1980s. But as good as any of those were, I don’t think they match “La Grange.’ A-how-how-how-how!

Note: For those interested in the history of adidas and Puma shoes and the feud between the Dassler brothers that led to the forming of two competing companies in one small German town, look into Sneaker Wars by Barbara Smit. Even if you don’t wear sports apparel of any kind, it’s a fascinating look at influence the two companies had in starting the amazingly huge business of marketing sports gear and apparel.

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