Blackspot Shoes – a Nike antidote?

This guest post is written by 2016-2017  IMC candidate Leeza Shabekova. Her blog is about business with a conscience.

Let’s go back in time to the 90s where this story begins. As labor costs increase in Korea and Taiwan, Nike moves its contractors to China, Indonesia and Vietnam. This decision turns into one of the worst public relations disasters in corporate history: Jeff Ballinger, a worker’s rights campaigner, exposes the meager pay, abusive treatment, and child labor that characterizes Indonesian factories. Nike makes several attempts to clean up its image but protesters continue to take to the streets. In 2003 and 2004, the company audits its own factories and voluntarily publicizes human rights violations.

This is where Blackspot shoes comes into the picture.

AdBusters Media Foundation decided that they had enough of Nike’s ruthless monopoly and started a for-profit venture to try to cut into their market share. They traveled the world and found a unionized factory in Portugal that treated its employees with an outstanding level of care. Not only that, organic hemp, recycled rubber tires, and faux leather made the shoes environmentally responsible as well. It’s what The Ecologist called ‘the most ethical shoe in the world.’

But they weren’t thinking just competition, they were thinking opposition – and every aspect of the marketing took that into account. Taglined the ‘The Unswoosher,’ the shoes mimicked Nike’s Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. Their sides were marked by white ‘anti-brand’ logos that looked like smudged Nike symbols. At the toes, there were red dots that symbolized kicking Nike’s butt. Adbusters even refused to sell in corporate stores, opting for independently owned businesses and an online co-op where buyers became shareholders.

I was happy to learn that Blackspots are still being sold to this day. I absolutely love the product because it’s people, Earth, and animal friendly – it is the epitame of a business with a consciousness! But it’s because I love this product so much that I’m not a fan of everything else. Not the marketing, nor the business model.

Adbusters wanted to go ‘head to head’ with Nike but in their own words: ‘we’ve sold tens of thousands of Blackspots … but we’ve yet to unswoosh the swoosh, to seriously cut into Nike’s market share.’ I wish Adbusters made a huge splash in the shoe industry, but I’m convinced that it’s going to remain in the fringes. Here’s why:

  1. It’s a walking contradiction: The white logo is an ‘anti-brand’, but through that it becomes a brand symbol of its own – for Blackspot shoes.
  2. It’s not scalable: To achieve an economy of scale, you have to reduce your input costs and increase production. When your shoes cost a lot to make and you refuse to sell them through Foot Locker or other large chains….well, I rest my case!
  3. It’s aimed at the wrong crowd: The marketing concept is terrible if it’s supposed to appeal to Nike lovers. If someone is buying Nike, they probably love the whole big brand name thing. Yet Blackspot shoes stands against that- they are not very appealing to the mainstream public.
  4. The product line is too small: Nike has countless types of shoes and apparel. They are innovating new products all the time – it’s part of their appeal. Adbusters has only ever sold a sneaker and boot, and although the quality is amazing, they’re pretty darn boring.

The Blackspot brand has raised awareness about sweatshops and other issues that can result from corporatism, just like Adbusters wanted them to. Perhaps they’ve even helped propel the whole indie ‘grassroots capitalism’ way of doing business that Adbusters values. But please, don’t tell me that your ultimate goal is to make Nike obsolete – if you want to ‘unswoosh the swoosh’, you’ll need a different strategy.

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