How to Kick It: 5 Digital Marketing Lessons from the Sneakers Industry

Eva Maria Schmidt
May 10, 2017

Air Jordans, Chuck Taylors, and Kanye West’s “Yeezy” sneakers are flying off the shelves around the world. Athletic footwear is a thriving $55 billion per year growth market (SportsOneSource) in which shoes are more than just products, but cultural icons super-charged with style and meaning. And at a time when many industries have been wrong-footed by digital transformation, the sneakers game is pacing ahead into the hyper-connected future.

Releases of limited sneakers used to be strictly analog affairs – with hundreds of “sneaker heads” waiting outside notorious specialty stores like Supreme or CNCPTS – but now increasingly happen online, where rare kicks sell out within minutes.

Sneaker fans are more than passive consumers in this game, but empowered brand evangelists with their own voices spreading the gospel of fresh “kicks”. Select influencers like @glasgowrob, @runnerwally and @uglymely generate several thousand impressions per Instagram post.

As the hype continues, the sneaker biz has not only grown phenomenally – over 40% since 2004 – but also raised the bar for digital storytelling. When it comes to kicking engagement into high gear, here are five things every digital marketer can learn from the sneakers business:

1. Know your customers

Footwear brands walk in close sync with their customers. Sneaker-specific apps for iOS and Android – most notably the Nike SNKRS app, adidas Confirmed or Foot Locker’s Launch Reservation – offer an attractive bargain: Customers share personal information such as shoe size and stylistic preferences and in return receive first dibs on exclusive sneaker releases, purchasable right through the app. Users even decide which shoes will hit retail next: In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Air Max shoe, Nike let fans vote on their favorite “retro” models, resurrected on Air Max Day, March 26, 2017.

Kick it right: Compile data from apps, social, website, and e-commerce into universal consumer profiles as the basis for personalized messaging across preferred channels.

2. Nudge with engaging stories

When fans contemplate whether to “cop or drop” a new pair of kicks, an exclusive back story can provide that final nudge towards conversion. Brands build stories around their rich heritage, like the ongoing Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star legacy. They weave imaginative tales like 2011’s John F. Kennedy-themed New Balance x CNCPTS shoe. They revive classic collections like the adidas EQT line or innovate next-level tech like Nike’s self-lacing HyperAdapt 1.0 shoe, released for $720 and now worth $3,528 per pair. Stories are amplified on dedicated media outlets such as @sneakersmag while consumers and influencers add their own fuel to the flames.

Kick it right: Storytelling is great, but remember products also have to “walk the walk”.

3. Use scarcity to create value

The sneaker business treasures rarity, and often hundreds of prospective customers line up for a handful of limited edition shoes. Once every available pair has been snatched up, certain sneakers become “grails” on the $1 billion sneaker resale market (Complex). Greatest hits include a pair of Converse Pro Leathers worn by Michael Jordan in his college days that recently fetched $33,387 eBay or the Back to the Future II-themed Nike Air Mag that netted $200,000 in a charity auction. And value is not just a guessing game in the sneakers biz: Using complex algorithms and real-life sales data, the StockX platform not only tracks the current resale value of coveted sneakers, but also facilitates auctions.

Kick it right: Rarity is only part of the equation. The adidas Yeezy collection is textbook for a magical mix of supply, demand, and storytelling.

4. Leverage synergies

Adding strength to strength, sneaker companies often join forces on product collaborations (short: “collabos”) with hot designers, artists, and sneaker stores. When Riccardo Tisci, Kendrick Lamar, or KITH put their stylistic touches on limited edition sneakers, engaging stories ensue, amplified through the joint network reach of all involved. That reach can boost sales dramatically: When Kanye West premiered his signature adidas Yeezy Boost 350 model at several concerts in Spring 2015, the shoes not only became instant collector’s items, but adidas’ North American revenues surged 30% that year.

Kick it right: Always make sure collaborators are on the same stylistic wavelength. If the shoe doesn’t fit, no one will wear it.

5. Let your fans do the talking

With reaches like Nike’s almost 28 million Facebook likers, leading sneaker brands have a strong social footprint. For added impact, nothing beats word-of-mouth created by authentic fans uploading their #onfeet images on social media. This is why savvy brands now pre-load their campaigns with share-ready hashtags like #adidasNMD or #ZOKUrunner. They monitor social conversations closely and listen to fans. Scandinavian brand Hummel even invited blogger Seveninch to design a collab shoe. The most prominent sneaker heads command their tastemaker status into lucrative businesses: According to Yahoo Tech, influencers with over 1 million followers collect up to $50,000 per brand-endorsed post – plus free shoes, of course.

Kick it right: “Influence” is not just a numbers game, so value audience quality over quantity. Followers can easily be bought and up to 8% Instagram accounts are bots (Business Insider). Ultimately, it’s all about keeping it “real” – both in marketing and the sneakers game.

Looking for more marketing slam-dunks? Also check out the marketing perspective on who is the Greatest of All Time – Michael “Air” Jordan or Lebron James.