Do you know your Air Force 1s from your Yeezys? No matter. There’s a lot to learn from how sneaker brands are fostering the “cultural dimension” of the sneaker experience — the intangible thread that connects every sneakerhead.

Arjun Chawla

Associate Director at C Space

Arjun Chawla is an Associate Director at C Space Boston and self-proclaimed “hip-hop head.” Arjun began his career at Goldman Sachs and now advises brands across a range of industries, including technology, retail, fashion and automotive – on youth marketing strategy, consumer insights, emerging trends and innovation. He’s led projects for Fortune 100 clients and is the co-author of the C Space CQ™ report on the US Automotive Industry.

Sneakers are part of my identity — part of a language I share with a wider group of “sneakerheads.” We connect through what’s on our feet.

Even if you don’t know your Air Force 1s from your Yeezys, there’s a lot to take away from what’s happening in sneaker culture. For 15 years, I’ve enjoyed following it, studying it, being a part of it. Of course, it’s not all about us, the consumers. We may take sneakers and give them new meanings, but brands, boutiques, and even museums are helping cultivate a culture around the sneaker.

When I see what these sneaker brands are doing, it reminds me of Starbucks. In the 1980s, Howard Schultz had the idea of creating a “third place” based on his observation of Italian cafe culture. He understood that Americans were looking for a place that wasn’t home and wasn’t work. Today, the “third place” idea is the Starbucks experience; it’s manifested in everything the brand does and is a large part of the company’s success.

Sneaker brands are doing something kind of similar. They’re zeroing in on fostering the “cultural dimension” of the sneaker experience — the intangible thread that connects all us sneakerheads.

Cultures thrive on conversation and myth. In sneaker culture, rumors are myth.  And myth is the stuff of legends…or legendary designers. I’m thinking way back to 2017 and what was perhaps THE sneaker story of the year: “The Ten” collection, a collaboration between Nike and Off-White designer Virgil Abloh on 10 iconic Nike silhouettes, like the Air Force 1 and Air Jordan 1. Rumors of “The Ten” started swirling back in December 2016 at Miami’s Art Basel. Speculation ensued. Designs leaked on Instagram. When “The Ten” finally dropped in August 2017, sneakerheads were so hyped that they couldn’t wait to cop a pair (or ten).

Cultures define what they believe to be beautiful, what they consider cool and now. To a culture like mine, being marketed to about that stuff just feels wrong. It’s like an Air Jordan XI knockoff; we’ll always be able to sniff it out. What gets us really excited are new cultural experiences, like when sneakers are celebrated as art, or when the art is about sneakers, highlighting an intangible beauty that only true insiders can understand.

Like in January, when Abloh released a special Nike Air Force 1, this time in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The kicks sold at MoMA for $175 — only one pair per person, please — and now resell for upwards of $2,000.

Then in February, Abloh collaborated with Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami to open Future History, an exhibit at London’s Gagosian Gallery. Murakami is known for blending high art with street style and has served as creative director for sneaker and fashion festival ComplexCon. The exhibit is not sneaker-centric. But it celebrates art related to design elements that both men have used in sneakers, streetwear, and street culture-related pop art. Abdol summed up the reasoning behind all of this: “We are driven by an innate ambition to make artworks that are shaped by societal observations — in a variety of media — which by their existence produce a new cultural impact.”

Of course, all cultures need gathering places. For the sneaker-obsessed, our favorite gathering “space” is social media — a visual wonderland that plays to our short attention spans and gets us talking and coveting. Sneaker brands seemed to have mastered the art of social, using platforms like Instagram and Snapchat in new and interesting ways that make sneaker-oriented events more exciting.

I’m thinking about the NBA All-Star Game, where Jordan Brand used Snapchat to create an augmented reality experience. It made one of sneaker culture’s marquee events even more dope. And, people at the Jordan Brand All-Star event had access to a special QR code that they could scan and use to buy the new AJ III Tinkers exclusively through Snapchat. The sneakers sold out within 23 minutes.

When you look at what these sneaker brands, designers, and artists are doing, understand that the “culture dimension” is sacred to sneakerheads. Ultimately, these brands are creating experiences and conversations that bridge the online and offline worlds, something that can certainly inspire other brands who are trying to create their own culture — or maybe just a little buzz.

So next time you’re thinking about customer experience, brick and mortar vs. ecommerce, or how your brand can tell a more compelling story, check in on what’s happening in Sneakerland. It just might help you take a step in the right direction.

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