In 1917, Converse invented the basketball shoe. Six years later, the company created one of the world’s most enduring sports brands: the Chuck Taylor All Star, a canvas and vulcanized rubber hightop with a single star on each ankle-the original “signature shoe”-the first basketball sneaker created for a player and promoted under his name.
But it took until 1985 for the signature shoe concept to truly take off: in that year, Nike launched its Air Jordan line of basketball shoes, in synch with the rookie NBA season of a preternaturally gifted player out of the University of North Carolina. Today, Converse faces the dilemma that history and tradition don’t sell shoes the way they used to. For decades, everyone from junior varsity players to NBA stars wore the brand. But that was mostly before Nike, Adidas, and Reebok entered the arena. While the Big Three feasted on what was fast becoming today’s $17-billion athletic shoe industry, Converse floundered in the years leading up to its bankruptcy filing in 2001. (Nike bought the company for $305 million in 2003.) “If you look at any defining moment in basketball, Converse was there,” says Ric Wilson, the company’s director of sports marketing. “But there was a disconnect. That relationship to the game wasn’t moving the needle in terms of sales.”
This fall, Converse plans to reconnect: on November 3rd, it unveils the Converse Wade, only the second signature shoe line in its history, this one attached to Dwayne Wade, the dynamic Miami Heat point guard and former star player from Richards High School, in suburban Oak Lawn. In today’s NBA, say shoe marketers, there is no single player like Michael Jordan, an athlete whose appeal extends beyond the sport’s fans. Even LeBron James, the talented Cleveland Cavaliers forward straight out of high school who is widely touted as the next Jordan, has yet to connect with general consumers. Nike, which gave a $90-million deal to James in 2003, seemed to be fishing for a story line with mass appeal in ads last year portraying him as a cartoonlike martial arts hero.
Among other shoemakers, the strategy has been hypersegmentation: target a small subniche among fans and sign players that speak to it. For example, Reebok signed Philadelphia 76ers point guard Allen Iverson, the “bad boy” of the NBA. Adidas snapped up Tracy McGrady, the hard luck teen turned draft pick, of the Houston Rockets. In this environment, companies are forced to gamble on players they hope will become tomorrow’s superstars. “It’s like taking out an option on a stock or commodity,” says Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “You have to sign them early, well before you know where they’ll wind up.”
Enter Dwayne Wade, a promising but relatively unknown commodity who graduated from Marquette University in 2003. At that time, Converse offered Wade, the NBA’s number five draft pick, a fairly standard three-year deal to wear and promote its products. Then he made the 2004 Olympic Team after his rookie season. In his second year, he earned All-Star honors as he led the Miami Heat to the playoffs and People magazine named him one of their “Most Beautiful People.” Suddenly, Wade began to look like the Next Big Thing-and Converse still had him under contract.
And what about the shoe itself? Ernest Kim, a well-regarded critic for the sneaker-fan bible, Sole Collector magazine, remarks that the construction of the $90 sneaker, with its leather upper that almost completely covers the shoe, is sleek but may have a bulky feeling at the heel. But he thinks the shoe has good sales potential because it has a distinctive look that will stand out on TV. “The shoe should read well from a distance,” says Kim. “If a shoe reads well, people will know exactly what they’re looking for when they’re at the store.” And that, one presumes, is precisely what Converse had in mind.