How Nike Conquered Skateboard Culture

The sneaker giant rewrote the marketing playbook to tap the outsider sport

| July 13, 2006

It took a while for skateboarding to be taken seriously as a sport, let alone one in need of its own gear. Before genuine skate shoes like Vans cropped up, boarders had to wear basketball shoes or whatever else was available. As the skateboarding phenomenon grew, so did its credibility and market potential. So when 'a four-letter word' like Nike tried to join in the profits by offering its own line of skateboarding shoe, the conformity-balking skater community declined -- repeatedly. But as Maria Hampton reports in Adbusters, a decade-long effort that rewrote the marketing playbook finally won Nike access to the prized demographic.

At first, though, Nike's reliable arsenal of award-winning ad campaigns failed. The sneaker giant did its homework, scrapping traditional focus groups in favor of skateboarding ethnographies written by anthropology graduate students. Nike homed in on 'skate's secret language of images and icons,' got graffiti artists and skaters in on the design, and discovered that skateboarders had co-opted the company's 1985 basketball shoe, the Dunk. Nike then reissued the Dunk in limited runs exclusively in skate shops and continued to reissue the shoe in varying color schemes and motifs.

Eventually, Dunks became 'the fastest selling shoes in the US.' The timing couldn't have been better. Underground skate brands were enjoying mainstream success, writes Hampton, and 'suddenly the difference between old skate and Nike wasn't night and day anymore.' It was no longer necessary to venture to the suburban fringe and risk halfpipe injury to join the culture, leaving Hampton to wonder whether 'companies like Nike only accelerate the death of the counterculture that so attracted them. ' -- Rachel Anderson

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