This week, the heretic Brooklyn agency MSCHF released a new pair of “Satan Shoes,” customizing the black and red iconic Nike Air Max 97’s with pentagrams and real human blood. The company dropped 666 pairs of the modified sneakers. The drop was also a collaboration with the rapper Lil Nas X following the release of his song Montero where he dances with a Satan looking figure in the devil-themed music video of the song.
After very controversial reactions from the consumers on social media, on Sunday, Nike has announced that: “We do not have a relationship with Little Nas X or MSCHF. Nike did not design or release these shoes, and we do not endorse them.” On Monday, Nike filed a lawsuit against MSCHF alleging that “unauthorized Satan Shoes are likely to cause confusion and dilution and create an erroneous association between MSCHF’s products and Nike.”
The people and social media are divided. This will be an interesting IP infringement case to watch in the era of curation and cancel culture. I wanted to reflect on the news and Nike’s actions from cultural branding and consumer culture angles. Respecting the legal process, I want to limit the blog mostly to questions. At this point, we have more questions than answers, anyways.
CANCEL CULTURE. As a brand, Nike is known for its tolerant and playful affordances around its products for the sneakerhead movement and curator culture. Yet, Nike has clearly set the tone about who owns the swoosh by announcing: “Decisions about what products to put the ‘swoosh’ on belong to Nike, not to third parties like MSCHF”
Will Nike be canceled? If so, why will it be canceled? Will Nike be canceled for not being aware that The Swoosh does not belong to the brand anymore?
Will Nike be canceled for…
…not respecting the skills and practices of sneakerheads?…not allowing for a playful and co-creative space around its brand? …not resonating with the demands of the Zeitgeist? …for tightly controlling their brand? …for not acknowledging the stories of the other storytellers around the brand? …for acting disproportionately to some curators like Lil Nas X than the others who have been playing and modding Nike sneakers for a long time?
CURATION MARKET. Sneakerhead is a form of taste regime that elevates the sneaker product with certain aesthetic innovations and practices including abundant sneaker closet displays and craftsman level personalization activities. The sneakerhead taste regime is supported by the increasing prominence of curation culture and collection culture. Curation is the jugular vein of the new aspiration economy, giving mundane objects a new form of value and empowers consumers to have an intentional relationship with these products.
How will Nike’s new lawsuit…
…impact the brand image of Nike as an innovative & future forward brand that highly resonates with the Zeitgeist? …impact the curation culture around the product? …discourage the curators who have the skills and craftsmanship to engage with Nike products? …change the strong Nike brand culture — the shared and pseudo-fact stories of the brand? …reshape the broader narrative around sneaker consumption and personalization/modding?
DROP CULTURE & RESELL. The contemporary sneaker consumption is a highly performative consumer culture where people buy, personalize, consume, display, trade, or keep their sneakers. The drop culture in the sneaker market demands performance from consumers to act on limited availability and to master timely engagements. Seeking mainstream appeal is the shortest and surest way to “lose cool” in the contemporary sneaker culture. The value in this market is redeemed not fully by the original companies that own the brands like Nike, Yeezy, or Supreme but is intentionally left on the table for the resell market to capture it in exchange for the buzz and coolness created around the brand due to this exclusivity, limited editions, demanded performance.
Are Nike’s recent actions aligned with the dynamics and practices of this consumer culture? Will Nike’s recent actions…
….have repercussions for the reseller and retailers? …repercussions for the resell economy? …repercussions for the drop culture?
MYTH MARKETS. Nike’s branding efforts are driven by the understanding that brands are not mere images or creatives; they are historical, political, and cultural agents. Through these cultural branding efforts, Nike has become a historical entity whose desirability comes from these culturally, historically, and socially relevant stories that address prominent social tensions. As illustrated also in the Kaepernick campaign and many more, Nike brand works on the myth of changing the world through sports. Via multiple ad campaigns over the years, Nike has perfected the brand ethos of combative and competitive solo willpower that will help people surpass beyond societal and cultural limitations. Jordan, Tiger, Kaepernick, and Serena all fit with that ethos. Does not Lil Nas X also align with that? What about MSCHF?
Which myth was not aligned with the long-standing myth of Nike? Which misalignment in myth markets made Nike draw the line? Is it the myth of…
….Lil Nas X as the intermediator? …MSCHF as the curator? …the satan myth that Nike did not want to associate with? …the blood? Or the myth of blood as a ritual in satanism? …the swoosh? Why didnt Nike act on the MSCHF’s Jesus shoes drop?
CROWD CULTURES. Historically, cultural innovation and cultural influence flowed from the margins of society — from fringe groups, social movements, and artistic circles that challenge the norms and conventions. So does cool. The current crowdcultures that the sneaker culture feeds from value the empowerment, democratization, personalization and performance. Misalignment with the contemporary consumer culture surrounding sneaker consumption and disengagement with the prominent crowdcultures (like the drop culture, sneakerheads) might cost Nike its cool. Nike might not be “a cool kid” anymore.
Will this unauthorized use of Nike brand bring more buzz and press attention to the brand? Will it alienate certain groups of crowd cultures like sneaker culture, streetwear that have contributed to the cool of the brand?
COLLECTION CULTURE & METAVERSE. Aligned with the increasing popularity of the taste regimes that focus on the aestheticization of the products, the collection market has increased its appeal, especially during the pandemic. There is an “ongoing bidding war in online auctions for jewelry, watches, furniture, sports cards, vintage cars, limited-edition Nikes and crypto art.” [NYT, Here’s How Bored Rich People Are Spending Their Extra Cash]. We observe the collection hype in sneaker markets as well where the sneakerheads collect the digital or physical collectible sneakers. The virtual sneaker brand RTFKT Studios collaborated with the crypto artist known as FEWOCiOUS in a series of virtual sneakers that were sold in the market for NFT’s ( Non-Fungible Tokens: virtual products that are auctioned off via Blockchain technology). The sales of these virtual sneakers via NFTs have produced $3.1 M in 7 minutes [Source: Hypebeast]
These shared and collective reality environments in digital, virtual, and augmented spaces — what we call Metaverse or Mirror Worlds — will change our ecosystem of reality. The floating referent to the reality and disconnection from the original is an important pattern as what we call real is going through a paradigm change [More in this blog]. The loss of the original is the result of the technological mediation of experience, where reality becomes a network of images and signs without an original referent. More we have copies or images without reference to an original as in the case of these virtual sneakers, less we will have ground to control the original like Nike did.
How will Nike control its brand image and prevent dilution in #Metaverse where the reference to the original will be floating?
In sum: Nike has expressed that they have filed a suit to control brand image and prevent the dilution of the brand meaning. Will it really? What is the purpose of filing a lawsuit for a sold out sneaker? What will we be the ramifications for the resell and retail market? Will Nike keep its cool among the prominent consumer culture and crowd culture groups?
Going forward, can brands be appropriated and modded by the curation culture? Where is the boundary? Who owns the product? More importantly, is Nike ready for the new paradigm change in reality where brands will need to rethink and reformulate their brand identities?
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