When cool goes mainstream and becomes less cool

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Do you guys remember Airwalk, the skate shoe that was all the rage when we were kids?

Through ’95 and ’96, Airwalk created a shoe epidemic by staying close to what their customers wanted, then channeling their understanding into innovative products and creative, appealing advertising. But things took a turn once they got big and neglected the core stuff – what their customers actually wanted – that earned them their fame.

In case you can’t be bothered reading, the key takeaway is that it pays to keep our users at the heart of our decisions – whether designing products, websites, campaigns, brands or tools.

For those interested, this is the story of Airwalk’s decline:

The Airwalk epidemic did not last. In 1997, the company’s sales began to falter… In critical locations, [they] failed to supply enough product for the back-to-school season… [and] began to lose that cutting-edge sensibility that it had traded on for so long.

“When Airwalk started, the product was directional and inventive. The shoes were very forward,” said Chad Farmer [creative director at Airwalk’s ad agency, Lambesis]. “We maintained the trendsetter focus on the marketing. but the product began to slip. The company began to listen more and more to the sales staff and the product started to get that homogenized, mainstream look…”

Lambesis’ strategy was based on translating Innovator shoes for the Majority. But suddenly Airwalk wasn’t an Innovator shoe anymore. “We made another, critical mistake,” Lee Smith, the former president of Airwalk says. “We had a segmentation strategy, where the small, independent core skate shops – the three hundred boutiques around the country who really created us – had a certain product line that was exclusive to them. They didn’t want us to be in the mall. So… we segmented our product.” … The [Innovator customers] always got to wear a different, more exclusive shoe than everyone else. The mainstream customer had the satisfaction of wearing the same brand as the cool kids.

But then, at the height of its success, Airwalk … stopped giving the specialty shops their own shoes. “That’s when the trendsetters started to get a disregard for the brand,” says Farmer. “They started to go to their boutiques where they got their cool stuff, and they realized that everyone else could get the very same shoes at J C Penney.” The epidemic was over.

Smith says, “Cool brands treat people well, and we didn’t. I had personally promised some of those little shops that we would give them a special product, then we changed our minds. When we became bigger, that’s when we should have paid more attention to the details and kept a good buzz going, so when people said you guys are sellouts, you guys went mainstream, you suck, we could have said, you know what, we don’t. We had this little jewel of a brand, and little by little we sold that off into the mainstream, and once we had sold it all… so what? You buy a pair of our shoes. Why would you ever buy another?”

Abridged excerpt from The Tipping Point (p. 213-215) by Malcolm Gladwell.

Picture from Ninetiestalgia: October 2010.

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