Sneaker-makers chase the coveted "Original" label, but in the end, do consumers even care who was first?
Sneaker marketing has
always been about making outrageous claims. From PF Flyers' 1950s promise that its "posture foundation" technology will make you "run faster, jump higher," to the image of an outer-space-bound Michael
Jordan that had young boys everywhere chanting "Be like Mike," brands have gone to ridiculous lengths to establish themselves as the shoe that could make anyone a professional athlete (or just look
But the sneaker industry, thanks to a phenomenon not entirely of its own making, has migrated away from the court, track and field and onto the street, where authenticity, credibility and, yes, originality, matter more than slam dunks and world records. From Keds canvas low-tops paired with pom-pom socks and poodle skirts to the rock 'n' roll rebellion that Converse epitomized, and the '90s birth of the "sneaker pimp" - collectors who keep the tags on and panic at the sight of a smudge - sneakers have evolved from a functional piece of athletic wear to the epitome of a lifestyle brand.
Fearing that its brand would fade into the collective memory as the shoe that our mothers wore when they were children, Keds launched a campaign in March to re-establish relevance by, according to Darren Paul, a partner at Night Agency (which did the work), "telling the story of the brand." That story begins in 1916, when the U.S. Rubber Company introduced the first pair of Keds. The Original Sneaker campaign "draws a line in the sand," says Paul, with the brand staking a claim: "Where everyone is trying to be original; we are the first."
On the campaign's microsite, theoriginalsneaker.com, created by Night Agency, the original tag line was "Keds: the first shoes to be called sneakers." But thanks to the investigative journalism skills of one New York Times reporter, Keds conceded that the word "sneaker" (from "to sneak" - as in one who sneaks around in rubber-soled shoes) had in fact been used as slang for tennis shoes as early as 1887 (thank you, Times, for reaching new heights of pedantry). Paul says "we stand behind our claim" that Keds is the first company to use the word sneaker as a part of its brand - thus it is the first sneaker.
Moving past such geeky etymological concerns, Paul says that "what people are really interested in is the style and the design of the shoe," which is the true focus of the campaign. The Century Collection releases a new limited-edition Web-exclusive shoe inspired by a different decade each month, and features collaborations with designers like Steven Alan and Alice + Olivia to appeal to fashion-conscious consumers who shop at Neiman Marcus and probably don't think of Keds when they need some new kicks. For creative types, The Keds Collective uses a network of independent designers and artists - chosen by the brand - whose unique designs are featured in the "design of the day." Orders are manufactured on demand and the designer receives a royalty from each sale. The Style Gallery - where anyone can upload pictures of themselves wearing Keds - celebrates "real people" and is also prominently displayed on the shopping site Chictopia, where the shoes on those real people can be purchased. Of course, in the end, that line in the sand is just a line in the sand and the word "original" is still up for grabs.
Adidas (founded in 1923 by Adi Dassler and his brother Rudolf, who broke off in the 1940s to start Puma) launched its own "Originals" campaign in February of this year with the site adidas.com/originals. The site, created by augmented reality agency Metaio and Sid Lee, allows users access to a virtual neighborhood - the "Adidas Originals Neighborhood"- using an augmented reality code printed on the tongue of each shoe in the "Originals" collection. "Come back and play on the street where originality lives. It's your turn to be the first," it entices. On the same site, viewers can read stories, enter contests and watch videos by brand ambassadors like DMC, Def Jam, pro skater Dennis Busenitz, who designed a skateboarding specific shoe available for purchase, Missy Elliott, the spokesperson for "Respect ME," a campaign targeted at young women, and beloved-by-all part-time soccer superstar and and full-time underwear model David Beckham, just in case they missed anyone.
While Adidas may not be the "first" sneaker ever made, by associating its brand with groups and individuals widely accepted to be "authentic," Adidas seeks to establish its credibility from the soccer field to the streets of Brooklyn. Even if you grew up in a suburb in Ohio (OK, especially if you grew up in a suburb in Ohio), Adidas gives you access to a neighborhood where skateboarder Tim O'Connor practices his Melon Grabs on a homemade halfpipe (and invites you to join) and R&B artist Ryan Leslie spontaneously breaks out in song. And all you have to do to be a part of this 'hood is buy a pair of Adidas.
Converse has been making its Chuck Taylors since 1917. Originally marketed as a basketball shoe, the canvas high-top took on a life of its own in the '60s and has since become the shoe of countercultures - every moody teenager in America has sported a pair at some point. For its 2008 "Connectivity" campaign, the brand celebrated its 100-year anniversary with an original track by Pharrell Williams, Santigold and Julian Casablancas from The Strokes. The campaign "connected" early icons (Hunter S. Thompson, Sid Vicious, James Dean) with current idols such as M.I.A., NBA star Dwyane Wade and Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
While the campaign was generally considered a success, especially for a brand like Converse that appeals to an audience averse to advertising, such a massive advertising presence can be risky ("I'm sure Hunter S. Thompson and Sid Vicious are puking in their graves" wrote ProHipHop), so the next campaign, by the same agency, Anomaly, was less obvious, and exclusively online. "Domaination" sought to establish relevance in the lives of young consumers - consumers that is, who both buy sneakers and look to the Web for answers to life's many mysteries. Rather than running traditional ads based on Google searches, Domaination created microsites where, for example, a young man nervous about his first kiss would receive humorous but not condescending video instructions preparing him for the big event.
The Converse Web site is divided into Buy, Make and Play, creating both a shopping destination (off-the-shelf or customized) and a cultural hub providing everything you need to define your Converse lifestyle. Visitors can read interviews with photographers, writers and artists that Converse "likes" (borrowing vocab from Facebook, and hoping kids post its content there), watch videos of professional athletes and bands, and download songs or entire playlists curated by djs and record labels. For Converse (now owned by Nike), the "originality" of its brand relies strongly on a cultural heritage that has little to do with its own marketing efforts. But they are certainly running with it.