Years before the infamous “Pigeon Dunk” riot, a critter of a different kind turned buyers into barbarians.
Imagine, if you will, Christmas 1996. The Nintendo 64 had just launched in September. A US election was decided in November. Yet by December, both the hottest toy – and one of the biggest news stories of the year – was a $30 doll named “Tickle Me Elmo.”
Billed as a “magical surprise” due to its interactivity, the Tickle Me Elmo rode a wave of media buzz to become one of the hottest products in history. Mobs trampled store employees during restocks. A vibrant secondary market emerged, with some sellers asking $1,000 per doll. John Gotti Jr. is even rumored to have purchased an entire case “after-hours” from a Queens Toys-R-Us.
Drop day drama? Ridiculous resale? Elmo, it would seem, was the original hypebeast. But that’s not where the Sesame-streetwear parallels end.
Behind the scenes, a team of marketers and publicists deployed time-tested tactics to turn the $30 doll into an emotional object worth thousands. Some of the strategies they used to build hype around the toy – like sending free product to media influencers – seem to be ripped straight from today’s headlines. In reality, the ways fashion, sneaker, and streetwear brands conjure up “cool” are as old as the sun.
It’s a well-known fact that hype multiplies. Here’s how it goes from zero to one.
Whether it’s an Elmo or a Bogo, one of the truest ways to create hype is to supply less of a thing than the quantity demanded. The art lies in gradually supplying more of that thing so the hype converts to business growth. One way brands establish – then scale – excitement is through an incremental rollout.
As the name suggests, an incremental rollout begins by bringing a small quantity of a specific item to market. From there, distribution gradually increases in both scope and volume through a series of ever-bigger releases, teasing – but never quite satisfying – the sneaker community. Months after release, the item in question is made widely available. Even if the originally-limited colorways don’t resurface, a wide spate of “close enough’s” (likely in neutrals or primary hues) will convert the hype they generated into mass market sales until the item in question becomes *gasp* eventually uncool.
The adidas NMD is a case study in hype built incrementally. The shoe first released in its “OG” colorway in December 2015. Pairs were limited. Sell-outs were inevitable. Pre-launch events drew journalists and bloggers alike, guaranteeing headlines. The sneaker world could see adi’s new hotness. It just couldn’t really get a pair.
Over the next few months, limited-editions NMDs – like the OG “Glitch Camo” or the Nice Kicks “Tie Dye” collab - brought marginally more product to market. Hype built. Feeds fluttered. Still, relatively few shoes were sold.
Then came “NMD Day.”
In March 2016, after four months of fermenting the hype, adidas released 18 colorways of NMDs throughout its distribution network. Suddenly, every shop from KITH to Foot Locker had close enough colorways of the sought-after shoes. The result? A reported 400,000 pairs sold in just one day.
Make no mistake, adidas is far from the only brand to build hype this way: Nike, who re-released Italy-exclusive “Le Silver’s” before gradually-bigger releases, took a similar route with the Air Max 97.
However, it’s important to distinguish a planned incremental rollout from the limited production numbers that accompany breakthrough technologies. While the adidas Futurecraft 4D (or historically, the OG Flyknit Trainer) may roll out in gradually-increasing numbers, its rarity is more a consequence of manufacturing than marketing strategy.
Another way brands create hype is through the creation of local exclusives. If you can’t posit what a local exclusive is, just imagine the opposite of a “general release.” If you can’t post what a general release is, ask a parent or a patient friend.
Local exclusives build excitement the same way that incremental rollouts do: by limiting supply relative to demand. Unlike a rollout, however, there’s not necessarily a direct outlet for all that excess want. Instead, the goal of a local exclusive is brand-building, in the widest sense.
When a satin Jordan 1 drops by surprise in New York City, the goal is excitement for attractive, exclusive product – and the Jordan brand. When an event-exclusive EQT ADV drops at Art Basel 2016, the goal is excitement for attractive, exclusive product – and the adidas brand. ComplexCon “Kennedy’s.” All-Star adis. What these releases lack in sales volume, they more than make up in fan experience (and, of course, media exposure). They weren't limited to a certain city or even an event, but Virgil Abloh's European-exclusive Air Jordan 1 surely had American sneakerheads looking enviously across the pond.
While specific shoes may eventually see a salt-inducing general release (see: the Air Jordan 1 “Top 3 Gold”), if done correctly, the publicized hype around their original exclusivity keeps the brand in a positive mind-set for sneakerheads.
In an era of scaled online resell and global social media, do local exclusives truly matter? Perhaps not, at least in the traditional “Five Boroughs” sense. However, as long as local exclusives continue grabbing both eyeballs and headlines, brands will continue to release them. Hype, like politics, is often local.
Given its place in modern media, one might assume that “influencer marketing” is a recent phenomenon. However, the basic premise (identify figures with followings; get them involved) is perhaps one of the oldest promotional tactic in fashion. Givenchy’s iconic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” dress for Audrey Hepburn is evidence of the cultural bump the right alignment provides.
However, as screens have shrunk, the domain of the influencer has only expanded. Today, influencer marketing splits into two camps. One of these camps contains broadcasters. These are the more traditional definition of “influencer”: musicians, celebrities, and people who have built followings in the culture at large.
Generally, brands work with broadcasters to set directions as opposed to making quick sales. When adidas sent Ellen Degeneres her own customized Stan Smiths before the shoe’s 2014 relaunch, Ellen didn’t post a “link in bio” where followers could reap discounts. Instead, she (and adidas) sent a different message: these soon-to-be-available shoes were good-looking and worthy of a beloved cultural figure. When Nike sends shoes to style editors (or adidas gives away Yung 1’s at Paris Fashion Week), they hope to build similar associations.
Opposite broadcasters lie specialists. While broadcasters typically built their followings through work produced offline, specialists consist of the Instagram famous. While some specialists may eventually become broadcasters (e.g. Chiara Ferragni), even those with six-figure followings have their fates tethered to the platform and are used by brands as such.
The archetypal “Instagram influencer” falls into this category: a brand will send the influencer product with the understanding that the product sent will be shown off on social media. Increasingly, the brand will pay the influencer for the post based on the size and “engagement” of the influencer’s following – turning a human being into the functional equivalent of a paid media channel. Established brands typically won’t play in this space, but for start-ups, engaging with specialists is a cheap way to put eyeballs on product as an attempt to build hype.
Last but not least, there’s consumer empowerment. In an era of “experiences over goods,” brands have doubled down on their experiential marketing efforts by involving select, lucky fans in product creation. The result: brand loyalty, positive sentiment, and a whole lot of hype.
Nike and adidas both have jumped headfirst into this arena. Last Fall, Nike’s “OFF-CAMPUS” activation brought DIY workshops to fashion weeks around the globe. This February, adidas’ “747 Warehouse” space hosted a “Creator Farm” pop-up where select attendees could build out their own custom shoes. Whether trend-following or not, it now seems like table stakes for some sort of customer involvement (from “ON AIR” workshops to exclusive customization options) to accompany any happenings in the sneaker world.
That’s not to say all empowerment events are created equal. As with anything, the more exclusive a desirable thing is, the more excitement it will generate. However, judging by the resale prices on “OFF-CAMPUS” gear, even large-scale events are an incredibly effective way for a brand to build hype today.
“I think it’s all quite smart,” says Brian Trunzo, Senior Menswear Editor at trend-forecaster WGSN. “We’re in a time of hyper-personalization and DIY culture. Anything that deals with marrying product to consumer experience will do better at this moment.”
In the midst of a retail meltdown that bankrupted one of the world’s most iconic toy stores, Build-a-Bear Workshop – that experience-driven mall stalwart famous for hosting your little brother’s birthday party – has hit its fourth straight year of profits.
Perhaps there’s more to that Elmo connection than we’d like to admit.
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