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Two collaborations between athletic companies and the underground sneaker culture include the partnership between Aleali May and Nike and Foot Locker’s investments in Pensole and GOAT. Three campaigns that have used the sneakerhead culture are “We Live Sneakers” and “The Hunt” by Foot Locker and Nike, as well as “Heartbeats4Sneakers” by Klarna. The sneaker market and culture are driven by social media, online communities, specialized marketplaces, and entertainment celebrities.

Collaborations and Partnerships

1. Aleali May and Nike

  • Aleai May, a 26-year old stylist and influencer with a multicultural background has been a part of the underground sneakerhead culture since she was a child.
  • She started collecting sneakers when she was a kid. In high school, Airforces and Jordans were one of the few fashion items she cared about. Even her other family members were into the movement, with her grandmother waiting in a line when new Jordans were released to get them for one of her children.
  • At the moment, she owns around 300 pairs of sneakers. Highsnobiety, one of the most influential sources of information on sneakers, called her “a self-professed sneakerhead.” She is also a stylist for some of the hip-hop celebrities, such as Kendrick Lamar.
  • She is one of the two women who collaborated with Nike to create the Jordans. In 2017, she designed two colorways of Jordan 1’s. In 2019, her “Millennial Pink” Jordan 6s were released and sold out in minutes.
  • According to Andrea Perez, VP of the Jordan brand’s women business, ““We look to partner with brands and individuals such as Aleali – who authentically connect to Jordan Brand and the community. [Aleali] inspires young women to stay true to themselves without limitations.”
  • Hypebae put the collaboration among the most successful sneaker partnerships of the 2010s. They praised it for giving a unisex touch to a typically male model.
  • According to the LA Times, she”made history with her unisex Jordans.”

2. Foot Locker’s Investments

  • In recent years, Foot Locker has made several investments related to the underground sneaker culture.
  • In 2019, the company invested $2 million in PENSOLE, a footwear design academy. The school was started by D’Wayne Edwards, a former Jordan Design Director. He aims to educate young people who are passionate about sneakers, regardless of their socioeconomic background.
  • Through the investment, Foot Locker wants to discover new talent, who will be equipped to design exclusive product lines for the company’s family of brands.
  • In the same year, Foot Locker made the largest investment in its history. The company put $100 million in GOAT Group, which operates a secondary sneaker marketplace GOAT, as well as Flight Club retail stores with rare sneakers.
  • Online secondary marketplaces are at the center of the underground sneakerhead culture.
  • At the same time, Foot Locker’s move was aligned with their new mission, “to inspire and empower youth culture.” The company believes that investing in GOAT brings them closer to their customers.
  • It also strengthens Foot Locker’s digital footprint and its involvement in the sneaker culture, while GOAT gets funding and access to potential new customer groups.
  • While the results of the investments are not available yet, Foot Locker has been praised by Digiday for “realizing that the world has changed.” Applico called it the company’s “best move.”
  • According to Applico, thanks to the investment, Foot Locker will get insights into the sneakerhead culture, which will allow it to reach the most passionate sneaker buyers.

Campaigns

1. “We Live Sneakers” by Foot Locker

  • In August 2019, Foot Locker and Nike launched the “We Live Sneakers” campaign, which celebrated the sneakerhead culture in its diversity and wanted to raise awareness about Nike’s “Evolution of the Swoosh” collection. It was a part of a wider program, “Because Sneakers,” that aims to unify the sneaker community by appreciating all of its members, regardless of their age or interest.
  • According to Foot Locker, sneakerheads are a diverse and eccentric group, which has a variety of interests, including music, photography, fashion, and art. The campaign aimed to speak to members of the movement regardless of their age, serving as a bridge between their passions. It showed people during important moments of their life, with sneakers at the center.
  • The company prioritized its digital presence, so the campaign revolved around content published online and on social platforms. One of the reasons for choosing digital channels was the convenience of online shopping.
  • Foot Locker claimed that they are only collaborating with brands when there’s a mutual story to tell. It was not only important to promote “Evolution of the Swoosh” but also to drive high social media engagement.
  • The spot “Foot Locker x Nike Evolution of The Swoosh: We Live Sneakers” had over 8.7 million views on YouTube.
  • The Facebook post with the same ad had 941 reactions, 95 comments, and 212 shares. On Instagram, the video had 999k views.

2. “The Hunt” by Foot Locker and Nike

  • In October 2018, Foot Locker and Nike launched one of the most anticipated sneaker models of the season, limited-edition LeBron 16 King “Court Purple” sneakers. The companies organized an augmented reality (AR)-based scavenger hunt in Los Angeles to celebrate the sneakerhead culture, which often involves standing in long lines or hunting online to buy a specific pair.
  • That time, instead of standing in a line, local sneakerheads were told to download the Foot Locker app, which provided geo-targeted AR clues that eventually led to obtaining a card that allowed to buy the sneakers.
  • The game started at 11 pm on October 20, shortly after Los Angeles Lakers’ first home game in the NBA season.
  • According to Foot Locker, it “has always looked for new ways to elevate the shopping experience for their customers.”
  • The promoted sneaker model was sold out within two hours, with hundreds of sneakerheads participating in the hunt.
  • FirstBorn was a design agency that helped design the hunt and add an AR functionality to the Foot Locker app. After the success of the hunt, the companies worked together on preparing similar experiences in different cities.
  • Mobile Marketer observed that AR is a technology that proves to be well-received by sneakerheads, as shown by “Nike’s Air Jordan III “Tinker” shoe selling out in 23 minutes via a Snapchat AR lens, as well as similar campaigns from adidas.

3. “Heartbeats4Sneakers” by Klarna

  • In 2020, Klarna, a global payment platform and shopping service, launched the “Heartbeats4Sneakers” campaign to celebrate the global sneakerheads community.
  • Klarna partnered with Highsnobiety, sneaker experts, “to reward sneakerheads with limited-edition shoes by monitoring their heart rates.”
  • First, one of Highsnobiety’s editors chose the most sought-after sneaker models of the last decade, which included 2015 Adidas Original Yeezy Boost 750 OG, 2016 Acronym x Nike Presto Mid, 2017 Virgil Abloh x Nike Air Jordan 1 Chicago, 2017 Sean Wotherspoon x Nike Air Max 97/1 and the 2018 Daniel Arsham x Adidas Futurecraft 45.
  • Then, Klarna launched a raffle. To enter it, participants had to visit Klarna’s website and get their heartbeats measured by pressing their fingers to their smartphone or laptop’s camera. According to the company, getting sneakers is difficult due to bots that often make winning online auctions difficult.
  • To promote the raffle, Klarna released a spot that described the life of a sneakerhead as “‘filled with wandering dreams, relentless craving and true dedication.” It also partnered with sneaker influencers and merchants.
  • After the raffle, partnering merchants offered 10-90% discounts on sneakers if the buyers used their cameras to measure their heart rates before making the purchase.
  • The campaign reached 700 million people, while the online spot had three million views on YouTube. Additionally, merchants that took part in the discount program saw a 40% surge in sales.

Growth Drivers

1. Social Media, Online Communities, and Marketplaces

  • The Content Plug noted that social media and online shopping have majorly influenced the sneakerhead culture. While it is sometimes more difficult to buy sneakers with bots and raffles, compared to standing in physical lines, more people are aware of the sneakerhead movement and interested in buying trending pairs of shoes due to Instagram influencers and ads by online marketplaces.
  • Stephen Hoggard, a young African-American sneakerhead, confirms that with sneaker releases becoming a hot topic on social media, it is now difficult to buy a pair because supply doesn’t meet the demand. Christian Scott, another young sneakerhead within the black community, thinks that while social media boost sneaker sales, they make people less interested in the sneaker culture.
  • According to IX, the sneaker culture used to be based on being a part of a wider cultural movement, which encompassed an interest in basketball and hip-hop, as well as following certain black icons such as Nelly and Michael Jordan. In order to be considered a true sneakerhead, a person had to precede trends in the sneaker market and participate in events that were important to the culture.
  • However, nowadays, the movement is no longer “an insider club” due to the emergence of online communities, marketplaces, and Instagram influencers. Based on the research by Shareablee, media companies are among the primary factors driving the market.
  • Such companies include GQ, Complex, and Sneaker News. They allow people to read sneaker news and exchange shoes. They also typically cover other topics that overlap with the sneaker culture such as hip-hop and fashion.
  • Sneaker News, which is exclusively dedicated to the sneaker culture, has 5.3 million monthly visitors and 8.1 million Instagram followers.
  • At the same time, the resale market is fueled by the rise of dedicated marketplaces. Before, if people shopped for sneakers in the second market, they usually went to eBay or Craiglist. However, there were questions about the validity and safety of purchases made through those marketplaces, which led to creating more specialized online shops and platforms, including GOAT and Stock X.
  • Such marketplaces have an authentication process that prevents sellers from offering counterfeit shoes.
  • Stock X’s US valuation has reached $1 billion, while Foot Locker invested $100 million in GOAT.

2. Entertainment Celebrities

  • Research by Shareablee shows that entertainment celebrities and athletes are also two of the most influential factors related to sneakers’ popularity.
  • According to multiple sources, including Frank and Oak, and Complex, celebrities, especially rappers, are currently the most influential force in the sneaker culture.
  • Frank and Oak observed that while athletes were idolized in 80s and 90s, which put people like Michael Jordan at the center of the sneaker culture, social media shifted collective interests. Sneakerheads now aspire to the colorful lives of the rich and famous, while hip-hop has become a dominant music genre.
  • With kids wanting to become rappers when they grow up, musicians have become major drivers of both the sneaker industry and culture.
  • At the same time, major sneaker brands are forced to collaborate with celebrities to remain competitive. Pharell Williams and Kanye West boosted adidas sales in North America, while Travis Scott and Virgil Abloh allowed Nike to protect its market share in the US.
  • According to Complex, the celebrity space within the sneakerhead culture is especially competitive. A few years ago, Drake, Pharell Williams, and Kanye West were the three dominant forces. However, at the moment, there are many influential names such as Travis Scott, DJ Khaled, and Jonah Hill.
  • As hip-hop is at the center of black youth’s identity, we considered this driver as relevant to this group.
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