Chaotic Sneaker Drops: A Marketing Dream or PR Nightmare for Brands?

Exclusive sneaker collaborations and buzzy drops have had a storied past.

On one hand, many devoted sneaker lovers will tell you that getting their hands on an ultra-limited release is a critical part of what fuels their passion for athletic footwear — whereas ubiquity is the antithesis of all things cool.

On the other hand, drops that have resulted in crowd control challenges and violent physical exchanges between sneaker enthusiasts have compelled activists to call out brands for forcing the hype.

The debate got some renewed interest this week when Adidas Originals and AriZona Iced Tea attempted to host a pop-up in New York to debut their collaborative sneaker — priced at a whopping 99 cents, to mimic the cost of the popular beverage. The event drew massive crowds that reportedly turned violent and led local authorities to shut it down before it even started. (In a statement, Adidas said it made the decision along with AriZona and local law enforcement to close the event. However, the super-exclusive collaboration — which includes four sneakers: two takes on Adidas’ Continental 80 and two takes on the Yung-1 — will be available to the public at a later date.)

Adidas x arizona iced tea sneaker
Adidas x Arizona Iced Tea $.99 sneakers.
CREDIT: Arizona Iced Tea

The situation yielded a plethora of headlines and begs the age-old question: Is all publicity good publicity? And, even more importantly, are brands actually hoping to create this kind of chaos from the outset?

When it comes to the former, Jeff Van Sinderen, a retail analyst with B. Riley FBR, said, “This is a PR dream.”

“Fans going wild is rarely a bad thing — assuming that nobody gets hurt,” he added. “[Adidas’ launch] amounts to a flash sale of product — at a super low price — that everyone wants, yet cannot have. And they want it even more when they realize they cannot have it. Sometimes things can get a little nuts, but that typically adds to it and, at the end of the day, scarcity creates demand.”

Similarly, Matt Powell, VP and senior industry advisor for The NPD Group Inc., said limited-edition collabs “are all about getting [a brand’s] name in the paper.” However, he added, the buck stops with violence: “When things get a little out of control — and it sounds like that’s what happened here — it’s not great.”

What’s more, Powell said he doesn’t believe athletic labels are invested in creating melee: “I don’t think anybody wants to see people get hurt trying to buy their products.” And while a few negative headlines about a disorderly drop won’t prove “fatal” for a brand, Powell said news of any physical violence or other undesirable chaos could offset positive marketing.

This is especially true in the social media age when Gen Z and millennial consumers are demanding higher levels of social responsibility and activism from companies. For that reason — among other strategic priorities — athletic companies are making bigger strides to prioritize the safety of their consumers and ward off undesirable headlines.

“[Athletic] brands have been very careful about this [lately],” Powell explained. “Nike had some bad press back in the day about kids fighting to get their shoes and they put a lot of controls into place to make sure people didn’t get hurt. Brands are [increasingly] cognizant of some of the pitfalls that can happen with [exclusive drops].”

(Nike, for example, in 2015 launched its SNKRS app, which helped level the playing field for sneaker enthusiasts looking to get a hold of limited launches — in turn, circumventing crazy lines and the massive crowds that can turn violent.)

Van Sinderen agreed that, from a brand perspective, “Violence is not the desired outcome.”

“Brands need to take precautions around these events to ensure that they remain under control,” he said. “Otherwise, they could potentially backfire. I would think that lessons were learned around this event that will be applied in the future.”


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