Sneaker Culture, Social Media and the Genius Behind Air Max Day

I remember the first time I stood in line for sneakers. It was stupid early in the morning, freezing cold outside, and I left my lighter in another jacket (great!) But like everyone else in line – I soldiered it out, made some friends, and even managed to procure a lighter in process.

But between sips of coffee, flicks of the lighter, and the self-negotiating (would I even get my size?!) I noticed many onlookers–bystanders passing by the long queue–giving looks of disbelief as they disappeared into their weekend errands. They would eventually pass by again, give another high-horse look, and retreat back to their warm cars. Meanwhile, I was tired, cold, and full of self-doubt. “Is this even worth it?” I asked myself. But it didn’t matter, I was at the point of no return.

In the end, it was a successful mission; I walked out with fresh pair Jordans and a sense of accomplishment on a Saturday morning. The shoes weren’t exactly my size, but no one said this story had a fairy tale ending.

Sneaker culture and outsiders

Like most cultural traditions, there’s significance and nuance that outsiders just don’t get. And rightfully so, if you’re not a part of a culture—or just a casual observer—then there’s not much context when it comes to traditions. That said, standing in line for sneakers—especially in the dead of winter—is a prime example of a cultural phenomenon that confuses many non-sneakerheads.

Loosely defined, culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people—encompassing a mix of language, traditions, social norms, values and shared attitudes. Again, this isn’t a hard-line definition, but you get the idea. And as strange as it may seem to outsiders, sneaker culture is a very real thing and its roots run deep.

From a cultural standpoint, sneaker culture is still relatively young, yet it ticks off many of cultural prerequisite boxes above. It has its own language/nomenclature along with a shared appreciation for the history, significance, and artistry around sneakers.

And, like most cultures, it now has its own established holiday–Air Max Day.

Nike introduced the inaugural Air Max Day in 2014. Since then it’s spawned into a—largely consumer led—month long social media frenzy that, not only, sells sneakers but helps reinforce and push the sneaker culture forward.

The genius behind Air Max Day

I’m not going to lie, I was highly skeptical and scoffed at the idea of a sneaker-centric holiday. Whether I like it or not, I am a consumer—but I hate being reminded of that fact. But now entering its fifth year, I’ve warmed to the idea and have even embraced it.

But let’s not kid ourselves, this is simply a tactic to sell more sneakers. But once you get passed that, you’ll realize it also unites sneakerheads and, more importantly, celebrates sneaker culture and the history. As usual, 2018 edition of Air Max Day has seen a ton of new releases celebrating both classic sneakers while introducing new tech savvy silhouettes. But it doesn’t stop there.

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As Jessica Schiffer points out, Nike pulls off a bevy of events, pop-up shops, surprise releases and other initiatives around Air Max Day. Last year, for example, they hand-picked and invited 12 creatives to design their own Air Maxes. A fan-vote (via social media) followed which eventually led the wider release of Sean Wotherspoon’s Air Max 1/97 dropping this year. Also, new for 2018, Nike will be hosting a design workshop series—dubbed the Nike: ON AIR—in select cities. The workshops, are billed as a way to directly involve consumers in the processes (briefing, concept building, and mood boarding stages of design) that bring their favorite Air Max silhouettes to life.

But without the power of social media, none of Nike’s marketing ploys would have the same reach, impact or ROI. In other words, Nike can plan the events, trickle out the releases, and spark the hype, but it relies on their loyal fans, and their thumbs, to fuel and proliferate the Air Max Day hype-train. And that’s where the genius lies.

The power of social media

In a 1992 interview with the Harvard Business Review, Phil Knight admitted, “We used to think that everything started in the lab. Now we realize that everything spins off the consumer.” This was in response to a question on whether Nike was a technology or marketing company. Knight continued to explain that they were doing a great job creating cutting edge shoe technology and getting their core demographic—athletes—to wear its sneakers, but they were falling flat when trying to attract the average consumer. They decided to pivot and concentrate on understanding who the consumer was and what the Nike brand represented.

Fast forward 26 years later, and it’s safe to say they figured it out. Not only are consumers still at the forefront of demand but—with the explosion of social media (in particular Instagram)—they are actually driving a large portion of the digital marketing efforts for Nike. And they’re doing it for free. Just take a quick scan of your social media feed on Air Max Day, and you’ll see a litany of posts from sneakerheads proudly showing off their Air Max grails and massive collections. I’m also willing to bet you’ll see posts from casual FOMO sneaker fans doing the same.

When it’s all said and done, the introduction of Air Max Day has created a month long—consumer driven—marketing juggernaut. And It’s an annual tradition that sneakerheads around the world have come to anticipate, embrace, and love.

Happy Air Max Day, y’all.

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