“There is always a moment where you can pinpoint a subculture’s entrance into popular culture — when something ceases to be a niche and joins the greater consciousness of the public (SB Pigeon Dunk, 2020).” For “sneakerheads” that moment occurred on February 22, 2005, the official release date of Nike’s SB Dunk NYC Pigeon edition.
The original silhouette of the Nike Dunk shoe was designed for college basketball programs in the U.S in 1985. In 2002 Nike officially launched Nike SB (SkateBoard) brand to the world and released the first Nike SB Dunk Low model. By 2005 they had tweaked the original SB Low shoe model to create the perfect skate shoe and Nike was able to convert the once hesitant skateboard community into a substantial skateboard following (SB Pigeon Dunk, 2020). Nike was now considered a core skateboarding brand and what would come next would live in infamy.
In celebration of Nike Dunk’s twentieth birthday, Nike SB released the White City Dunk Series featuring four designs inspired by cities considered sneaker epicenters: London, Paris, Tokyo, and NYC. Artists were enlisted to create individual city designs. To represent New York, they contacted Jeff Ng, known in the design world as Jeff Staple, founder of creative agency Staple Design. Nike asked Staple to create a design to represent his home of New York City on this piece of footwear. He was given a blank skate to come up with what he felt best represented New York. He chose the ultimate unofficial symbol of the city: the pigeon. The pigeon was an ode to the city’s hustle and the gritty survivalists who made their presence felt against all odds. The Pigeon Dunk Low was officially born.
If you could even call it a campaign, Nike’s marketing strategy for the White 2 City Dunk Series was exceptionally simple. Nike planned to quietly release 150 pairs to five New York City streetwear shops (30 pairs each) by sending the “experimental” shoes unannounced, and unrequested. Staple himself was the only one who knew they were coming – his Reed Space on the Lower East Side was set to be one of the five locations. With no advertising or marketing of the shoes from Nike, Staple posted a “drop date” on Staple Design’s website, with the actual date obscured by pigeon droppings. This information narrowed down the shoes’ available date to February twenty-something.
Unbeknownst to most New Yorkers in 2005, there was a burgeoning subculture of people who collected and traded sneakers. This phenomenon began as brands began to view athletes as style icons and supply them with covetable shoes. In NYC in the 1970s these target athletes were the best street ballers (Forbes, 2014). This subculture came to be known as “sneakerheads” and is defined as someone anywhere in their early teens to mid 50’s and who has made collecting and admiring sneakers their hobby. Sneakerheads are highly knowledgeable about the shoes, the companies that make them, and the people who wear them. This deep knowledge is something that sets them apart from just your average sneaker consumer (LaRoche, 2020). Sneakerheads today can be any age and gender, but in 2005 in NYC were largely young and male.
Based on the small website hint, lines of these young sneaker fans gathered outside Staple’s Reed shop on the 20th of February, pitching tents and sleeping bags, not knowing if they would be waiting a day or nite in hopes of getting their hands on a pair. On February 22nd, 2005, the actual drop date for the sneakers, the line had stretched to over 100 people which caused the cops to arrive. They tried to break up the line but the scene quickly turned violent as kids refused to leave. The cops began arresting people and called in the SWAT team for backup. By then, kids had pulled out machetes and baseball bats hoping to hold their place in line. Staple finally opened the door and 30 lucky customers purchased their shoes for a retail price of $150 dollars. Customers were escorted out the back of the shop and into waiting taxi cabs to avoid the violent crowd out front. The following day, the front page of the New York Post read “Sneaker Frenzy: Hot Shoe Sparks Ruckus,” and the story graced many news channels. By that night some of the shoes were selling for over $1000 on eBay, considered an unheard of up-charge. That day the world learned about sneaker hype, the second-hand market, and the realization of a culture built on sneakers.
Not all the NYC shops experienced the same frenzy. The Reed Space was the one store that buyers were positive would have them. In fact, the four other stores that received shipments weren’t sure what they were. Unlike today, stores weren’t known to order experimental products and Nike would send their experimental products unannounced to what they considered to be cool shops. It was rumored that one of the five stores that received the Dunk Low Pigeon, Supreme, gave all their pairs away to friends and employees. The pandemonium surrounded only Staple’s Lower East Side storefront – that force of pandemonium would come to be known in sneaker culture as “the hype.” To this day, hype is a common goal of marketing campaigns, especially those targeted at young, influential consumer segments.
This minimalist, consumer, and hype-driven campaign that largely lacked formal strategy, market research, budgeting, allocation, and forecasting but ended in historic success became a template for new marketing techniques considered staples in streetwear marketing today. The Pigeon is not only a pillar of sneakerhead culture and its expansion, it fundamentally changed the way companies deal with high-profile sneaker releases (Albertini, 2020). We can point to this campaign as an early influencer of the “hypebeast” phenomenon, organic street marketing, teaser campaigns, artist co-branding partnerships, and the role of scarcity.
2005 was a completely different marketing age. Social media didn’t exist in the way it does today; Niketalk, still in its Web 1.0 incarnation, was one of the few places to talk sneakers. The idea of buying a shoe for four-figures on the resale market was unheard of (SB Pigeon Dunk, 2020). Analyzing the success of this campaign spawned the development of a new market demographic: the sneakerhead was named and a new type of super-consumer emerged: “hypebeasts.” Hypebeast (or Hype Beast) can be defined as a person who follows a trend to be cool or in style. A person who wears clothing, sneakers, and accessories that are hyped up in order to impress others (Anwar, 2015). For the first time in history, the sneakerheads and hypebeasts could be visualized, identified, indexed, and learned from.
This campaign was an early example of what we now call organic street marketing or organic outdoor marketing. Fans took to web forums and message boards, they created hype by selectively sharing knowledge that allowed them and their fellow sneaker aficionados access to the NYC Pigeon drop. Their intel and network were so good that fans knew even before Staple when he was going to receive his shipment of Pigeons. As Staple’s team opened the shipment box, fans were already calling in about when they would be up for sale. The secrecy surrounding the Pigeon essentially gave birth to what we now call a ‘teaser campaign.’ Known as an effective way to build buzz before the launch, the idea is to release small snippets of content over time, stirring up just enough intrigue so your audience keeps coming back for more (Brenner, 2018).
This release was also the beginning of the collaboration or co-branded partnership with artists rather than athletes. Partnering with a designer hadn’t been done before and it was an unexpected link-up that had an interesting effect on supply and demand. Marketers learned an important lesson from this shoe release about how product scarcity is a tool that can be utilized to create hype and increase product retail cost. This caused sneaker brands to re-evaluate their selling strategies (Moran, 2017). After the Pigeon, retailers began to place orders for experimental, limited releases to capitalize on scarcity and leverage sales. This allowed them to take control of when, where, and how they sold experimental product lines.
Product scarcity also proved to be a good substitute for paid marketing (when a dependable fan base, such as sneakerheads, was involved). If there were enough organic hype and interest, user-generated content and organic social media sharing became the defacto advertising content. This same hype also created a secondary retail hype that catered to streetwear obsessives. Throughout the last decade alone we saw the emergence of resale markets such as StockX, Goat, Flight Club, and Grailed, all platforms that specialize in authenticating and selling sneakers and other goods for the buyers who lust after them. Originally, the Nike SB Pigeon sold at a wholesale cost of $32 dollars and retailed for $150. They currently sell for over US $42,000 (Sneakers, 2020) proving that the effects of hype and scarcity can be lasting drivers of collectibles’ value. “The secondary market is … legitimately creating heat because what it’s doing is it’s really providing a demand measure for the brand.” For example, if a sneaker is selling for less than retail in the secondary market soon after release, it could be a sign the brand released too many into the market, and demand for the sneaker was flat (Green, 2020).
Aside from the resale market, the sneaker industry alone is projected to be a $6 billion business globally by the end of 2025, according to a recent analysis from Cowen & Co. The growth is mainly in Europe, North America, and China, where sneaker culture has flourished and demand for rare sneakers has driven prices up exponentially (Green, 2020).
By the end of the next 10-year forecast or 2028, the sneaker segment of the footwear industry is expected to top $100 billion in the US and exceed $250 billion globally. Footwear is here to stay, and the only question we have to answer is one of style (Gaille, 2018).
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