Sneakerheads: influencers of industry or insignificant insiders? A business history on the collectible sneaker market

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School of Business | Master's thesis
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The collectible sneaker market started out as a small group of fashion-forward hobbyists and grew to become a multi-billion dollar industry. Behind this new market category was a group of protagonists called sneakerheads who inadvertently created a social movement that unmasked and ultimately helped quell innate social tensions within the United States. The purpose of this study is to understand the business history behind this new market category, specifically to identify the role of sneakerheads during the birth of sneaker subculture as well as their continuing influence on the direction of the industry. Narrative inquiry is used as the method for conducting empirical research in this study. Three interviewees and a total of eight interviews were carried out, with each interviewee representing specific aspects of sneaker subculture: Sneakers as a business, as a subject of journalism, and as a hobby. Transcripts of the interviews were analyzed using thematic analysis with the results grouped chronologically in order to follow rules of temporality in story-telling. The study indicates that sneakerheads were responsible for the birth of sneaker subculture but took a passive role in advancing the movement. Instead, Nike spotted the opportunity early on and launched a product in the 1980s that would enable the subculture to transcend the boundaries of the inner-city and propel it into a phase of mass marketization. Sneakers became popular because they spoke to myths on socioeconomic mobility, individuality, survival, and the desire for fame and fortune. Then, sneaker subculture entered a resurgence in popularity with the rise of the internet in the late 1990s. The internet contributed in two key ways: 1) It enabled anyone with an internet connection to become a participant in sneaker subculture and 2) It enabled shoe manufacturers to keep a pulse on the industry and anticipate trends by hiring influencers. The end result in the mass marketization of sneaker subculture was that the term sneakerhead itself became devoid of meaning and the authenticity and virtues behind the subculture began to erode.
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Schildt, Henri
social movement, new market category, subculture, consumer, management, strategy
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