In the era of smartphones and social media, what was once a subcultural nuance — sneakers as status symbol — has evolved into a global phenomenon.
Today, sneakerheads have better access to information and product than ever. Many who lived through the late-’90s and early ’00s phase of sneaker culture will likely bemoan that "the hunt" for sneakers is over. But of late it seems brands are realizing the importance of localized activities tailored to specific communities, with the side effect of creating a new air of exclusivity.
The biggest release of the past weekend, the adidas YEEZY Boost 350 V2, reflects that change in thinking. Three sneakers (albeit with one since delayed) were set for release, each with a different colorway and restricted to a different location. With YEEZY releases now slowly but surely starting to see supply outweigh demand, offering regionally locked drops could be the tactic that keeps the brand premium and the kicks collectible.
For better or worse, many measure the success of a sneaker (collaborations especially) by how much they resell for on the secondary market, and YEEZY resell prices have been falling due to increased supply. With that in mind, the thinking would now appear to be that someone in Europe will pay more for an Asia-exclusive model, and vice versa. Resale prices have no bearing on adidas' bottom line, of course, but keeping the YEEZY brand covetable does.
adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted hinted at a direction that balances mass-market volumes with exclusivity when he spoke to CNBC recently. “This year we will have more than 20 releases," he said. "Some will be very scarce and very low on volume, while others will have a different volume profile.”
Matt Powell of market research firm The NPD Group has been a critic of increasing the supply of products built on hype. The industry analyst sees similarities between what is happening with YEEZY and the oversaturation and subsequent dilution of retro Air Jordans.
“The 'success' of YEEZY has always been about scarcity: the more limited the release, the more value,” Powell says. “As long as releases are made in limited quantities, sales should be good.”
Nike SB also understands the importance of local storytelling. Its Orange Label sneakers only get released at skate shops with SB accounts, as in the Swoosh skateboard subbrand's early days. Whether all Orange Label releases will be kept to limited quantities remains to be seen, but the mere fact they're only available through certain channels lends the Orange Label project and its products an air of exclusivity, in theory pumping up hype and demand.
Harvard business professor Anita Elberse agrees with the strategy. “I certainly think local releases can help make products feel more exclusive and can be used to form stronger bonds with certain audiences,” she says.
There have been more than a few locally released sneakers in recent times, such as Virgil Abloh's Europe-only OFF-WHITE x Nike Air Jordan 1 “White,” the gold Pharrell Williams NMD Hu released in China, the upcoming Berlin-themed, European-exclusive Nike Air Max 180, the South Korea-exclusive “Seoul” Air Jordan 3, the purple UNDEFEATED x Nike Kobe 1 Protro that was raffled off in Hong Kong, and Abloh’s MoMA-exclusive Nike Air Force 1.
“Another benefit of local, sequential launches is that you can learn from what goes well and not so well, and adjust the product or the marketing campaign around it accordingly,” Elberse adds. “That is a very popular reason to stay away from global releases across a wide range of sectors.”
In the end, it’s about balance. Of course brands want to push products globally to maximize sales, but they also realize that some products' mystique and desirability are fueled by scarcity. So sneakers that live and die by hype, including YEEZYs and other limited-edition kicks, need to be managed carefully, hence the drive toward localization.
When brands drop city-exclusive products to celebrate a marathon or NBA All-Star Weekend, it makes people elsewhere want them even more because they commemorate a one-off event and are harder to get. It’s all about making both products and consumers feel special again.
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