BOSTON — PERHAPS the thought of a woman bonding with an athletic shoe sounds a bit far-fetched. A sneaker is a sneaker, after all.
But industry leaders don't see it that way, and they've got the sales figures to prove it.
''I think that women do bond with brands,'' says Kate Bednarski, who was part of Nike Inc.'s original ad campaign targeted at women and is now heading up a new campaign for Stride Rite Corp.'s Keds. ''Women thought of [Nike] as a brand for men and boys. But we won their hearts and loyalty.... We received hundreds of thousands of phone calls and letters from women saying they appreciated the words we were saying.''
In the athletic footwear business, where women buy more pairs of shoes than men do and spend about $4.7 billion a year, winning women's loyalty is crucial, says Terry Cecil, president of the International Sports Marketing Council in Atlanta.
Nike set the standard with its 1989 ads, says Vicki Reed, women's advertising manager for Nike in Beaverton, Ore. Other industries later picked up on it; Maidenform, for example, has a successful campaign based on an emotional appeal to women.
A current Nike ad for aerobic shoes features a woman named Donna Richardson who ''teaches what she loves. So she teaches aerobics and fitness to children, men, and women everywhere she goes.'' The ad says that ''she works out because she has found what she wants. And what wants her....''
These ads sell more than fashion or practicality, marketers say. Rather, they want women to make a connection between the product and their core beliefs, values, and emotional needs. The Nike ads, for example, are about women doing what they love and loving what they do.
Sneaker ads for women carry ''almost a spiritual message,'' Ms. Bednarski says.
For footwear companies, there is a danger that in the dash to connect with women emotionally, one ad -- and the sneakers -- may become indistinguishable from the next. ''The look and tone of a lot of athletic footwear ads are similar,'' Ms. Reed at Nike admits. On the other hand, women have little trouble identifying what the companies stand for, she says. ''They never confuse our brand even though they might confuse our advertising,'' she says.
Bednarski adds: ''The people we talked to said the ads are pro-women, and they felt included in them. Not one person compared us with Nike. Not one said, 'I've seen this before.' ''
Sales at Keds slipped in the three years leading up to the current campaign, she says. Traditionally known for its ''litte white sneaker,'' the Cambridge, Mass., firm broadened its line to include more sophisticated designs. But Keds execs knew the new shoes needed a strong marketing effort.
The new campaign, called ''Never Stop Growing,'' features females ranging from four- to 86-years-old. The ads ask questions that are designed to get women to make a connection between Keds and landmark moments in their lives. One ad asks, ''Which size Keds were you wearing when you had a diary with a lock? Which size Keds will you be wearing when you fearlessly express your own opinion?''
''Nike tapped into a whole area of advertising that treated the consumer, in this case adult women, as intelligent human beings,'' says Alan Holliday, a professor of advertising at Boston University. This genre of ads has lasting appeal, Professor Holliday adds. ''There's enough to be said in various compelling ways. But the campaigns do have to evolve.''
Reebok International's marketing has also evolved along similar lines. ''Our heritage is women, and we constantly have to reinforce the message that we understand them,'' says Kelly Lowell, Reebok's director of advertising in Stoughton, Mass.
Reebok launched its spring '95 campaign last month, featuring various female athletes the company sponsors. The theme: ''There's an athlete in all of us.''
Nike is also encouraging women to identify with athletes. In October, it unveils the first shoe named after an athlete in 10 years. Former Texas Tech star Sheryl Swoopes will have her own line known as Air Swoopes.
Five years ago, Nike's ads focused on encouraging women to work out, Reed says. Now, it's almost a given that women run, walk, or otherwise lead active lives, and they don't need as much encouragement.
''There's been a big evolution in terms of how women perceive themselves,'' Reed says. ''So we, in turn, can't just continue to do the same thing. We're all evolving, and I think we're all doing something right.''