From memes to sneakers – this week we're looking at which brands are commodifying cool.

The CX of sneakers

When you’re selling 25 pairs a second1, you know you’re doing something right.

Jon Darren

Creative

Brand Expression

4 minute read

There’s a market built purely around the loyalty of its customers. So much so, that even when they can’t get their hands on the items they desire, they stick with their favourite brand and wait for the next one. Welcome to the world of sneakers – a $79bn industry where success is measured as much in a customer’s frustration as it is in their loyalty.2
In short
  • Sneakers were catapulted into the mainstream consumer mindset by 1980s pop culture.
  • Since then, creative collaborations and streamlined buying experiences have further fueled the rate of purchase.
  • Want to master customer loyalty? The sneaker industry has so much to teach us.
The first steps
I happen to be one of these loyal customers, with a modest collection of sneakers (25 pairs and growing). As a child of the 80s I can still recall my first real pair of sneakers – blue Nikes with a yellow swoosh – that I wore every day. Before that pair, sneakers had just been equipment worn for sports.

But with the uprise of music, fashion and sports in the early 80s, the humble athletic item went from straight-up practical to outright desirable.
The days of desire
Looking back, you can quite literally plot the key moments in pop culture that can be attributed to the successful rise of sneakers.

1984 – Michael Jordan takes the court in his new signature Jordan 1 sneaker. This red and black colourway went against the NBA’s dress code and they fined him $5k every game he set foot on the court – which he continued to do.3

1986 – Run DMC release the track ‘My adidas’ which saw them wearing unlaced adidas Superstar sneakers. This led to a $1.6m deal with adidas – the first time a hip-hop group had signed with a sports brand.4

1989 – Back to the Future II sees Marty McFly pull on a pair of Nike self-lacing sneakers. Finally in 2011, Nike released a 1,500-pair limited release of replica Nike Mag ‘Back to the Future’ sneakers, which are now fetching nearly $10k on the resale market.5

This was the ultimate exercise in branding and the big companies took note. Their products were no longer for sports, but for life. What followed was a shift in marketing that turned sneakers into desirable items.

The number of big-name sports stars getting sneaker deals increased, which attracted the fans wanting to be like their heroes. Musicians would be seen wearing the latest sneakers on stage and in music videos. In Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing movie, a character had his brand-new Jordan 4s stepped on, sending him into a rage.6

Even TV shows got in on the act with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air displaying an ever-changing rotation of Air Jordan styles to match his wardrobe.7

Amazingly, at this point in time you could still simply walk into a store and buy the sneakers you wanted. The net result was that brands got their products on the feet of as many people as possible, creating some of the most loyal customers out there.
Selling the hype
Enter the marketing machine. Knowing sneaker fans would seek out their products, brands started to get inventive in the way they brought the loyal customer and the desired product together.

Collaborations with artists created the hype with limited runs. The Nike Dunk ‘Pigeon’ can be attributed to birthing the ‘camp out’ phenomenon we see today. Nowadays, the 150-limited pairs sell for over $50k.8 

Sneaker releases then became events with customers waiting in line outside stores for days to secure specific styles.9

Then there’s the personal touch, where sneaker fans could create their own custom looks. NikeID was the first of its kind and revolutionised how customers could get their hands on unique kicks.10

It was all there for the taking, and sneaker fans loved it.
Enter the tech
As a way to cope with the overwhelming demand for sneaker releases and reduce the huge crowds forming outside stores, online raffles began to take over. Fans could follow the releases through apps and register for their chance to buy, improving their customer experience.

The adoption of technology was a natural step in the marketing of sneakers. Unfortunately, with anything sought-after and desirable, there’s always someone looking to take advantage.

Enter the bots that automated the registration and checkout process for buying sneakers. This led to real fans being locked out of the chance to get their hands on the coveted style, as bots beat them to it.11

These sneakers would then appear on auction sites with hugely over-inflated prices. Now, it was all about who was willing to pay more for an item. But where there’s a problem, a new solution lies.

Broker-style trading sites soon emerged, where third parties could be engaged to evaluate an item’s authenticity, locate a buyer for it and facilitate the sale and shipping – all for a fee of course.12 Proving yet again that providing the best customer experience is at the heart of every move this industry makes.
Loyalty and frustration collide

While the odds may be stacked against customers getting their hands on the latest pair of sneakers, it’s the constant evolution of the customer experience that has kept them coming back for more. Brands know the value of their loyal customers and work hard to make their experience as smooth as possible, even if it’s often met with disappointment and frustration.

With that in mind, here’s a few marketing lessons we can learn from the sneaker industry:

 

    1. Know your customers
      When you have an incredibly loyal audience, there needs to be a constant value exchange between brand and customer. With customers ready and willing to hand over cash to get your product, anything you can do to simplify this experience will be greatly received.

      Example: The Nike SNKRS app that fuels their digital business and provides customers with the opportunity to purchase sneakers ahead of schedule.13

    2. Tell the stories behind the product
      Inviting the audience along for the journey allows them to form a connection with the sneaker. They get to see the thought that went into the design, as well as hearing from any possible collaborators who contributed to the project.

      Example: The Jordan 1 OG Dior sneaker.14

    3. Scarcity creates value
      Don’t saturate the market. By limiting the releases of your product or the number of items released, you can increase the demand while maintaining the desirability.

      Example: The Nike Dunk Pigeon where only 150 pairs were given to a handful of stores. Now the sneaker is worth around $50k.15

    4. Find authentic collaborators
      The crossover between brands can grab the customers attention but it’s important to choose the right people to work with. Partnering with the wrong brand could reduce your own value and audience base.

      Example: The Cole Haan x Slack collab. Who wants to see their laptop on their feet?16

    5. Innovate to progress
      Always look for the next iteration of your product or service, so you can continue to improve the customer experience.

      Example: The Nike GO FlyEase – a lace-less, step-in sneaker, designed for both fashion and the needs of customers with disabilities.17

And just like the loyal customer I became when I got my first pair of Nikes, my next pair is in the post right now – hot on the heels of my last.

on nostalgia marketing
An 80s colourway, a 70s silhouette. Nostalgia is a key ingredient in the sneaker industry’s success – and more brands are taking note. Beyond being a fun way to rehash your heritage, nostalgia marketing is incredibly effective as it promises ‘an immediate return in the form of happy memories’ on a customer’s spend.

How brands are using hype culture within their marketing strategy
Drop strategy, meme marketing and collaborating are a part of hype brand marketing as we know it today. These four brands are showing us how it’s done.

Nike commodifies coolness

From the original Air Force to the latest Jordans, Nike knows exactly how to elevate a simple pair of sneakers into a must-have status symbol.

Supreme’s all about the drop

If you love the line then Supreme‘s your brand. Through socials, ‘dropping’ has definitely worked well for Supreme – the Rimowa collaboration sold out in16 seconds!

Collabs with Off-White

Off-White has been named most popular brand two years in a row; a popularity built on collaborations. Their most recent collab with Nike raised $187,000 plus much-needed publicity for the Black Lives Matter movement by auctioning a pair of limited-edition Jordan 4s.

Nice to meme you, Balenciaga

While unconventional, Balenciaga has embraced the 'All publicity is good publicity' mantra by creating items so outrageous they automatically demand greater reach and attention. From fake Ikea handbags to ‘high fashion’ crocs, Balenciaga’s items continue to sell out before they’ve even hit the shelves. Could meme marketing be the way of the future?

References
  1. Scott Christian, Does Nike Really Sell 25 Pairs of Shoes Per Second? (12 October 2016) Esquire.
  2. Naomi Braithwaite, How sneakers became a $79 billion business – and an undisputed cultural symbol for our times (18 May 2021) Fast Company.
  3. Anonymous, Why Are Air Jordan 1’s Banned? (date unknown) Sneaker News.
  4. Gary Warnett, How Run-DMC Earned Their Adidas Stripes (27 May 2016) Mr Porter.
  5. Mark Jessen, Nike MAG ‘Back to the Future’ Shoes (1 January 2020) Man of Many.
  6. Riley Jones, These Exclusive Air Jordans Pay Homage to One of the Most Memorable Sneaker Moments in Film (19 May 2017).
  7. Tres Dean, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Is an All-Time Sneaker Show (20 August 202) GQ.
  8. Tomasso Berra, The Story of Nike Dunk SB Low Staple “NYC Pigeon” (10 April 2019) NSS Magazine.
  9. Seb, The art of the line-up: A beginner’s guide to camping (19 October 2018) Sneaker Freaker.
  10. Anonymous, Nike ID (date unknown) Nice.
  11. Matt Welty, Everything You Need to Know About Sneaker Bots (28 January 2021) Complex.
  12. Amir Ismael, StockX is a sneaker resale startup that makes sure you don’t get scammed when buying collectible shoes online – here’s how it works (5 June 2020) Insider.
  13. Mark Bain, Nike’s app for sneakerheads is fueling its digital business (29 June 2019) Quartz.
  14. Anonymous, The Meticulous Process Of Constructing The Air Jordan 1 OG Dior Sneaker (date unknown) Icon.
  15. Anonymous, Nike Dunk SB Low Staple NYC Pigeon (date unknown) StockX.
  16. Claudia Miller, Cole Haan Tapped Slack for a Sneaker Collaboration – And Then Caused a Twitter Storm (7 October 2020) Footwear News.
  17. Anonymous, This is Nike GO FlyEase (1 February 2021) Nike News.

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