How the Shaq brand missed the point and fuelled millions of bullying cases
Children can be cruel – in the US alone, 160,000 children a day avoid going to school out of fear of abuse. And while a large part of the problem has long been solved by mandatory uniforms, there is always a sticking point. A different backpack, different socks, different shoes. It’s the shoes, especially since the nationwide Jordan frenzy, that have become a determinant of social standing, including among kids. This problem was first noticed by Hakeem Olujawon, then Stephon Marbury and Shaquille O’Neal. Despite their good intentions, their lines of „affordable sneakers” only made the problem worse.
Why don’t you motherf*kers make a shoe that’s affordable?! – screamed a crying mother in Shaq’s direction. O’Neal was just at the beginning of his career, having barely started enjoying his sponsorship deal with Reebok. He pulled $2,000 out of his pocket and handed it to an angry woman, explaining that he was not the one setting the prices.
I don’t want your damn money,” she snapped, leaving a deeply confused Shaq with a bankroll in his hand. Whether or not this confrontation actually took place is known only to him, but far more important is what happened a few hours later. Shaq dialed Reebok and ripped up a $40 million contract. He decided to release his own line of shoes. One that everyone can afford.
And so the Shaq brand was born. Together with Walmart, O’Neal designed and released about $20 worth of shoes (you had to spend $150 to $200 on Jordans back then). Years later, he bragged on his social media about the brand’s huge success. – Laugh all you want, but Shaq brand has sold over 120 million affordable shoes, he wrote.
Sneakers for everyone
Shaq took a noble idea and wove an incredibly prosperous business out of it. However, history remembers earlier attempts to overcome the „shoe stratification” problem. The first was Hakeem Olujawon. At the time, the Nigerian was responding to an even more complex problem than inequality in school hallways – How can a working mother of three afford to buy $120 worth of Nike or Reebok shoes? – rhetorically asked the Rockets star. – Well, she simply can’t. So kids end up stealing these shoes from stores or from each other. Some even kill to get them – he explained.
„The Dream” series shoes (released by Spalding) were the first of their kind. With a price tag of $35, they made their way to Walmart and K-Mart, where they were to be available most easily to kids from underprivileged families.
They never had much success, and in 2014 'Akeem returned to his former sponsor, Etonic, with whom he released shoes worth… $120. That’s how noble ideas die.
Stephon Marbury was next in line. Raised on the streets of Brooklyn himself, he could remember how his parents were unable to afford new shoes. He played in equipment from niche brands throughout his career until he created his own. The main selling point of the Starbury brand, whose products are still under $15 today, was the supposed quality echoing the most respected products on the market.
Almost everything that Marbury earned in Knicks colors, he invested in this project. At one point in time not only himself, but also Steve Francis and Louis Da Silva played in Starbury shoes. The brand collapsed with the bankruptcy of Steve and Barry’s, but Marbury managed to bring it back to life in 2015.
Case study – what went wrong?
Entering the market with his brand, Shaq said: – It’s not that kids don’t want to wear $20 shoes. They don’t want to wear shoes that look like they cost $20.
And at this point it should be noted that although Shaq is regarded as an absolute marketing guru, and everything with his face on it disappears off the shelves in a heartbeat, he made a crucial error in this reasoning.
There’s a reason Nike completely ignored partnering with his brand. There’s a reason Olujawon’s „The Dream” were rejected by every other reputable shoe store. There’s a reason Starbury only became commercially successful when Marbury took them with him to China. And finally – there’s a reason why Shaq to this day, when boasting about his sales statistics, adds to them „laugh all you want”.
It seems like the logic of O’Neal’s statement should be flipped: It’s not that kids don’t want to wear shoes that look like they cost $20. They don’t want to wear shoes that cost $20.
One Reddit user shared a story about his school days in an American elementary school: „Years ago, when I was an urban youth, the kids on the school bus would be impressed if you showed up that morning in a new pair of the freshest Jordans. They were expensive and hard to get. Many pairs were limited release and therefore quite rare. Show up in a pair of Shaq’s, And-1’s or Starbury’s and you would walk to school… as the 'cool kids’ would laugh your broke ass off the bus.”
Shaq’s, Hakeem’s, and Marbury’s brands are, at root, based on a certain naiveté and fundamental misunderstanding of juvenile hierarchies. Just look to a trivially simple model that, while it has its flaws, helps understand the case quite accurately. The famous „4Ps of Marketing”, namely Price (price), Place (distribution), Product (product) and Promotion (promotion) are the four axis that must be considered in a successful business strategy.
In this case, the main focus is the product, i.e. the shoe, which in its aesthetics and functionality is supposed to refer to the object of aspiration, i.e. Jordans, Kobes or LeBrons. On the price axis, the first problem arises – cheap, in popular opinion, excludes good. Oluwajon’s shoes had abysmal sales statistics until he himself stepped out on the court in them, somewhat proving their quality.
And this correlation is all the more amplified in the minds of children – $200 Jordans are even easier to outshine $20 Shaqs because they can be directly compared within the same category. „I don’t care what Marbury says, that they supposedly make these shoes in the same factories as the Jordans. Get the fuck out of here. In every single school in the country, you show up in $20 shoes, you’re get absolutely cooked” the authors of the Internet Party podcast recall. And sales eventually tanked when LeBron said there would never be shoes from Walmart on his feet.
Shaq enabled over 120 million cases of bullying https://t.co/FzjHzCWtLS— Two-piece Advocate (@frazierapproves) October 10, 2020
The nail in the coffin of the whole idea, however, was the 4th P – placement – each brand decided to reach out to their audience in areas familiar to them, so they ended up in sweat shops. Racks crammed with hundreds of basketball shoes hanging on strings (a cardboard box would have raised their price by several percent) drew simple associations. Foot Locker adamantly refused to work with „The Dream” – they didn’t want shoes that were merely a substitute for Jordans.
The relative success of all three brands cannot be denied. Hakeem sold 4 million pairs, and Marbury and Shaq still maintain their lines to this day. However, one must question their idea, which is flawed and misguided at its very core. „Shaq has allowed 120 million cases of bullying,” claims a Twitter user. So while posessing basketball sneakers has become unprecedentedly commonplace thanks to three businessmen, the problem they were meant to combat has never been so apparent.