When a fashion designer and large brand decide to collaborate, it’s usually a cool thing. There is a seductive opportunity for people to get their hands on "limited-edition" products with a high-end touch. These collaborations can fuel enormous hype, breathe new passion and excitement for larger brands, and translate into big dollar signs.
Hardcore sneakerheads have been drooling over the mysterious new Adidas "JS Roundhouse Mid" sneaker by fashion designer Jeremy Scott for months. But this week, the anticipation came to an end. On the website debut, the sneaker was adorned with a pair of plastic orange prison-like shackles.
With over 3,000 posts after one week of its release, the overwhelmingly negative reaction was that the Adidas sneaker was “oppressive,” “racially insensitive,” and “demoralizing.” The shoe was dubbed “Adidas Slave Shackle Kicks"; tweeters raged against the ‘Slave Sneakers!’ and threatened an Adidas boycott. Jesse Jackson quickly stepped in and called the shoe an example of "human degradation." It wasn’t long before Adidas quickly did its PR two-step, made apologies, and promised not to release the sneakers at all.
Adidas' response would lead one to believe that the brand had no clue that the sneaker was anything but a creative work of Jeremy Scott's genius and that the intent was not malicious or offensive. But is this true? Don’t most brands study or research their target consumer audience? It is possible Scott was given significant creative freedom, but it is hard to believe that Adidas did not model the sneakers from every angle possible, take a million pictures of a prototype, and circle it around for feedback. To say not one person in the countless product, marketing, and creative meetings said, “Hey, these kind of look like slave shoes, maybe we should reconsider...” is highly unbelievable. When the senior executives sat down and thought about what the sneakerheads' reaction would be, what marketing strategy would be possible, and the money-making potential - they didn’t put their thinking caps on? I bet they had this conversation a few times and made the gamble that either the public would embrace the "Adidas Shackle Kicks" or that the controversy, negative consumer reaction, and subsequent PR melt-down would outweigh any money lost in the long-run.
The competition is fierce to create new products in the sneaker world that can reinforce brand credibility and be innovative for the consumer. These collaborations are a quick way to get people not only talking about your brand, but also wanting to make that purchase. Did Adidas use a racially charged sneaker to stay relevant? It is all about staying top of mind. In the aftermath, the brand has an opportunity to quickly put itself out there again in a big way - maybe a partnership, an endorsement, another collaboration - to maintain the buzz factor. Chances are that people will quickly forget the negative racial hype surround the Jeremy Scott sneaker. If the brand gives consumers something cool to buy next, they’ll take it.