Going After Nike
Like many entrepreneurs, Kalle Lasn has big ideas, and even bigger dreams. He talks about $100 million in sales, about cutting into the market share of giants, reinventing the whole idea of the corporation, inventing "a new kind of cool." Entrepreneurs need chutzpah, but Lasn takes it to new levels because as he spoke one recent afternoon in his Vancouver office, he didn't even have a product.
He did have an idea for a product, though, and a few weeks later worked out details that, he pledged, would put it on the market by October. The product is a sneaker, but in a funny way that's almost incidental. It's called the Blackspot, and Lasn's ideas all revolve around this brand -- or antibrand. That distinction matters a great deal to Lasn because for the past 15 years he has made a name for himself as one of the most vocal opponents of the whole concept of branding, advertising, and marketing. The magazine he co-founded, Adbusters, is devoted to satirizing, criticizing, and flat-out attacking big corporations such as Nike, Philip Morris, ExxonMobil, and McDonald's and their carefully crafted public images.
In 1999, Lasn (who pronounces his name, roughly, kol-lay lazzen) published Culture Jam, a book that railed against the "mental pollution" of marketing, implicating a culture of media images and endless sales pitches for rising rates of depression, alcoholism, even suicide. He wrote that the book Silent Spring and other totems of environmental awareness "shocked us into realizing that our natural environment was dying, and catalyzed a wave of activism that changed the world. Now it's time to do the same for our mental environment." Proposed solutions involved "demarketing," "subvertising," and a "guerrilla information war."
Lasn had already launched a war against the "mental pollution" of corporate marketing. There was only one problem: "We were losing."
This doesn't sound like someone whose next move would be into the market for consumer dollars. But here's the thing about the guerrilla information war that Lasn and his rotating crew of two dozen or so employees at Adbusters were fighting: "We were losing," he admits. While the Adbusters Media Foundation has built enough of an audience to keep it out of the red -- the magazine sells for $7.95 an issue and has international circulation of 120,000, according to Lasn -- it has had little success getting its incendiary anti-ads into any mainstream venue. So rather than just attack Nike -- although, as we'll see, that's still his obsession -- Adbusters would produce a rival shoe of its own, with environmentally friendly materials and ethical labor. Like many a brand before it, Blackspot would be designed to stand for big ideas: in this case, socially minded entrepreneurialism and grass-roots capitalism. "And, of course, coming up with an antilogo," Lasn proclaims, sounding excited, as he often does, "we're moving from whining into action."
Action has not been easy. Finding a manufacturer, for one thing, has taken a long time. Moreover, Lasn has a habit of alienating people -- and not just his rivals. One would-be partner has actually become a rival and has beaten Lasn into the marketplace with a different take on the antipreneurial sneaker. And even some Adbusters fans aren't sure that the whole notion of an antilogo isn't just double talk for hypocrisy.
Still, the Blackspot idea is provocative, merging protest and rebellion with shopping-for-a-better-world strategies. Often when a new brand or product is invented, its creators then make an effort to describe (or invent) its deeper meaning or Big Idea. Here the Big Idea came first, and it's the product that's being invented after the fact. Lasn wants to merge the marketplace of goods into the marketplace of ideas: The question is whether the Blackspot will live up to Lasn's lofty goals -- or whether those goals will end up sounding like the empty rhetoric of yet another pitchman.
The plan for the sneaker was announced in the October 2003 issue of Adbusters. The controversy over working conditions at Asian factories where much sneaker-making has been outsourced has quieted since the 1990s, but part of the point seemed to be to find a new way to apply pressure -- and to offer consumers a chance to express their opinions through shopping. The proposed shoe was essentially a black Converse Chuck Taylor All Star low-top with its traditional logo replaced by a circular smudge and a black spot stamped on the sole as visual representation of the antibrand. The Chuck Taylor, the thinking goes, was a rebel sneaker, worn by the Ramones and fashion-rejecting punks. Last year Converse was bought by Nike, making the shoe an ideal symbolic target. "We want to do a kind of loose Converse knockoff," Lasn says. It will look like that iconic sneaker at first glance but on closer inspection will have various "tweaks," so that "suddenly you realize it's something more than a Converse."
The Adbusters Media Foundation has its headquarters in a five-story, 100-year-old house on a mostly residential block of Vancouver, B.C., and while there's a kind of college co-op atmosphere, the place bustled with activity on a recent visit. The magazine's creative director, Michael Simons, and "producer" Paul Shoebridge (yes, Shoebridge) are in charge of negotiating the various barriers that separate Lasn's ambitious vision from messy reality. Shoebridge recalls thinking that the next step would be a simple matter of tracking down a list of acceptable factories and picking one. He worked the phones, talking to various rights monitors and so forth, and found that while plenty of organizations track problems, no one seemed to be keeping tabs on who -- if anyone -- was doing it right.
Meanwhile, on the other side of North America, Adam Neiman was intrigued. Neiman is president and co-founder of No Sweat Apparel, in West Newton, Mass., which sells a variety of clothing -- T-shirts, jeans, yoga pants -- that it pledges are "100% union-made." In the Blackspot, he saw an opportunity to link the "anarchista aesthetes" that Adbusters reaches with the "workers' rights crowd" No Sweat courts. He called Lasn and offered to handle the production-sourcing issues in exchange for co-promotion -- because, he says, "Kalle's a great promoter."
In the Blackspot, Neiman saw a chance to link Lasn's anarchists with his own workers' rights crowd. Instead, Lasn told him to f--- off.
According to Neiman, Lasn was interested but with the notable caveat that he didn't want a formal contract. No Sweat had a line on a factory in Indonesia and worked with a nongovernmental organization that interviewed its workers -- but Neiman didn't want to give Lasn the details until he had more of a commitment. "And he said, 'I don't think we're going to do anything with you at all," Neiman says. Lasn's version of this is both less specific and less diplomatic: "We told them to f--- off," he recalls breezily.
And that was that -- until Neiman saw an article that quoted Lasn bashing the antisweatshop movement as handwringers and whiners. "I blew my stack," says Neiman. "I was just furious. And I said, 'F--- it, let's just do this ourselves." In January, No Sweat sent a note to 6,000 people on its e-mail list announcing plans to make a sneaker -- black, low-top, Converse-like -- at the Indonesian factory. A few hundred preorders quickly followed. This was used to produce 1,500 pairs of No Sweat sneakers, which have since sold through the company's website and a handful of stores. Neiman borrows some of Adbusters' anti-Nike rhetoric, adding strategies like putting a leaflet in every shoebox with a reassuring rundown of workers' benefits. Subsequent batches have been produced and sold, and Neiman has cut a co-branding deal with female antiwar group Code Pink for a pink model and with lefty magazine Mother Jones for a red high-top. He says he plans more deals like that and is hearing from more retailers.
Lasn seems totally unfazed by the existence of a shoe that, to most observers, delivers the things that he's merely talked about. The Indonesian factory No Sweat uses, he claims, "wasn't good enough for us." Talking to Kalle Lasn in person is a bit of an exercise in cognitive dissonance. He is by all appearances a friendly, 62-year-old man with a charming accent, smiling like the neighborhood baker who wants your repeat business. Born in Estonia, Lasn says that as a small child he lived in a German displaced persons camp during World War II; his parents then moved the family to Australia, and as a young man Lasn founded a market-research firm in Tokyo. He "made a lot of money," married a Japanese woman, immigrated to Vancouver, and pursued documentary filmmaking. Passionate about nature, he got involved in a public relations tussle with the Canadian logging industry -- a guerrilla information skirmish -- and that led him to Adbusters and "culture jamming." The point of culture jamming is to undercut the endless stream of manipulative sales pitches that come at us from all directions, wearing down the mental health of the media-saturated consumer.
Despite his affable presentation, a good chunk of what Lasn has to say seems designed specifically to make someone else very angry. He goes out of his way to insult both left-wing activists and corporate titans -- always with a grin. This is not a man who is interested in compromise or bridge-building or the sharing of control, and indeed his employees refer any question of the slightest substance back to him: Adbusters and Blackspot are both extensions of Lasn's singular mindset, period. But in a way that is much more important than production details, it's this mindset that he believes will set the Blackspot apart. It goes to the heart of the intersection between ideas and consumption. How much power does a brand -- or an antibrand -- really have?
To Lasn, the Blackspot exemplifies a new kind of grass-roots capitalism, driven by entrepreneurs motivated by something other than accumulating wealth. It could give consumers a new voice in the marketplace, allowing them to buy into a set of ideas that challenges the megacorporations that dominate so many industries. Lasn's attitude toward Nike is particularly visceral, and in conversation he refers to its CEO, Phil Knight, as a "mind-f---er" at least six times. Why this level of personal anger? Partly because he dislikes the way Nike handled the sweatshop allegations of the 1990s. Knight "kind of ignored the no-sweatshop movement for as long as he could," Lasn asserts. "Cleaning up those factories is not something he did out of the goodness of his heart, as far as I can tell. It's something he did because the times changed and the pressure was put on him."
But mostly, he says, he opposes Knight because the Nike brand offers a false promise. Lasn describes a hypothetical teenage boy, insecure, trying to fit in and find an identity. Where does he turn? To Nike. The awesome brand power offers instant cool. But, Lasn continues, it's a fleeting cool -- a lie, a concocted image that stands for nothing but profit, manipulation, and exploitation. "I want to offer that kid a real form of empowerment," Lasn declares, "and that's what Blackspot is." So this is his way of fighting the "guerrilla information war" against Nike's cool: Be cooler.
There's a certain logic to this. Nike is a big brand. It's totally mass, with revenue in the billions, frequent big-budget television ads, a logo everyone recognizes, a ubiquitous retail presence. Why not try to be Red Bull to Nike's Coke, or Diesel to its Levi's?
How hard could it be?
Lasn is less interested in discussing the workings of sneaker factories than the antimarketing campaign he's planned. He talks of a $500,000 war chest -- earnings from Adbusters magazine, he says -- that he will spend on billboards near Nike's headquarters, on stunts like leaving black spots (stickers or maybe even ink) in Niketown outlets, and on print and TV ads that go after Nike and Phil Knight. One tentative TV ad shows the Swoosh morphing into a black spot as an announcer says, "No more corporate cool." A sample print ad called the sneaker "Plain. Simple. Cheap. Fair. And designed for only one thing: kicking Phil's ass."
The essence of Lasn's plan is brand jujitsu -- for the Blackspot to both piggyback on Nike's mighty and pervasive image and to undermine it.
Obviously, such a campaign has less in common with traditional advertising than with the protest-oriented agitprop on which Adbusters has built its reputation. The essence of Lasn's plan is brand jujitsu: Nike has built a mighty and pervasive image for itself, and the Blackspot notion is both to piggyback on that image and simultaneously to undermine it. It's still an "information war," not just advancing a set of ideas but trying to do so by tearing down a rival.
Nike spokeswoman Caitlin Morris was willing to talk a bit about No Sweat, describing its labor-description leaflet as an "interesting" idea but one that might not tell consumers the whole story. She also notes that Nike is part of an effort with other global sneaker makers to improve labor standards across the board. "Nike is pushing for a universal reporting format and a broad-based agreement about what's relevant to stakeholders," she says. But she declines comment about the Blackspot (and Lasn's rants) on the reasonable grounds that it doesn't exist.
There is, however, a group that is willing to speak up: Nike fans. Yu-Ming Wu, who is 25, is the co-founder and "sneaker editor" of a website called Freshnessmag.com, and he's as expert on sneaker coolness as it is possible to be (see "The Hunters," page 131). One afternoon, I talked to him and his partner, Danny Hwang, about the Blackspot, about Nike, about sneakers, and about cool. Hwang was wearing a pair of Nike Shima Shima 2 Air Max 1s ("a U.K. exclusive," he explained); they were made in Taiwan. Wu wore Air Max 90 Pythons, made in China, and noted that he owns 20 identical pairs.
In Wu and Hwang's world, Nike is not a staid mainstream brand -- it's the undisputed king. Time and again, Wu notes, Nike has innovated in the quality of its actual sneakers (appealing to athletes), in the way those sneakers look (appealing to the lifestyle wearer), and in edgy ways to promote them. "Everybody tries to copy Nike," Wu summarizes. Other companies now put out sneakers in limited-edition batches, or designs made in collaboration with edgy artists, or launch "urban underground" promotion campaigns. "None of it works," says Wu. "Nike did it already and moved on to something else. Those other companies are trying to catch up."
A sample print ad called the sneaker "Plain. Simple. Cheap. Fair. And designed for only one thing: kicking Phil's ass."
One thing Nike fans and the antipreneurs criticizing the brand seem to have in common is the idea that a sneaker can stand for something much bigger than footwear. Bobbito Garcia -- author of the recent book Where'd You Get Those?, a blend of memoir, sociology, and the cataloglike history of urban sneaker culture -- makes the case for sneakers as nothing less than symbols of personal identity. He did some consulting for Nike in the 1990s, but in the book he blames the company and others for the advertising onslaught that made sneakers a mass lifestyle phenomenon. Nevertheless, he praises Nike's quality and its marketing savvy. And he questions the antistrategies of its upstart opponents: Like politicians who go negative, attacks on a widely respected brand are more likely to turn people off than rally a following; you can't build an identity by being not something else. "I think it's really, really dumb on their part to market themselves as the anti-Nike," he said.
Talking to Wu and Hwang makes it clear that Nike is hardly seen in the marketplace as a stodgy and vulnerable brand. After all, Wu and Hwang are not just members of exactly the educated and plugged-in demographic that both the Blackspot and No Sweat target, they are also both of Asian descent. And neither seems to take the exploitation issue seriously, informing me that low wages in Asian factories are better than no wages. "The worst joke I tell is, 'They're employing my people," Wu says with a deadpan shrug.
In late June, Adbusters creative director Michael Simons took a trip to Europe, where the long journey to find a manufacturer apparently came to an end. Through the Vegetarian Shoe Co. -- a U.K.-based maker of footwear that looks like leather -- the Adbusters group was pointed toward a factory in Portugal. "He was waxing poetic about the factory," Lasn says, "how airy it is and how sunny and well ventilated, the old-world craftsman feel." The Blackspot, Lasn pledges, will finally be a reality.
The design will still be essentially a Converse low-top -- just like No Sweat's -- available in any color you want so long as it's black. One point of differentiation will be the materials: The shoe will be made of organic hemp. The Vegetarian Shoe Co. is handling the soles, which will be latex -- "much better than the toxic foam soles of typical running shoes," Paul Shoebridge says. (He hopes the next batch will have soles made from recycled tires, "with the treads still on them.") Lasn promises the first 5,000 shoes will be completed by October and expects most to sell through the Adbusters site.
When I was done at Adbusters headquarters, I met Billy Li, who also lives in Vancouver. Li, who is 26, is another sneakerhead and contributes photographs to Freshnessmag.com. He's a meticulous consumer, knowledgeable about high fashion and street trends, but he hadn't heard about the Blackspot, and he didn't seem particularly impressed. Converse knockoffs? Those shoes weren't even comfortable. And only in one color? He showed me his collection of hundreds of pairs of sneakers, most stored in their original boxes. We spent a good half hour looking at the dazzling array of materials, colors, styles. It was like getting a tour of a connoisseur's art collection. Needless to say, more than 95% of Billy Li's collection is Nikes.
Later we went shopping. We went from mall sneaker shops to high-end department stores to exclusive boutiques that straddle the line between retailer and art gallery. The Swoosh seemed to pop up everywhere. And while Nike will not comment specifically on its strategy with the Converse brand, the number of color and pattern styles available for "real" Chuck Taylors has increased markedly over the past year. When I mentioned to Li the unusual materials in the Blackspot, he showed me some Nike hemp models: The Nike division focused on skateboarders has actually produced such shoes. Another Nike division is experimenting with a variety of environmentally friendly materials. There is an awful lot here to uncool.
Nevertheless, Lasn seems buoyant. "The idea of pushing your way into the capitalist game and tussling with people like Phil Knight and taking some of the market share, I would argue this is one of the strategies that angry people, like me, have of changing the world for the better," he says. "Rather than always snapping at the heels of the people who are playing the game, let's get into the game. I think that it's possible to produce a logo like the Blackspot that stands for something real. If we can do that without selling out ourselves, then we're doing the right thing." And what about the real-life sneaker consumer, from the casual buyer to sneakerheads from Bobbito Garcia to Yu-Ming Wu? If they find "something real" in their brands of choice, who's to say they are wrong?
"I'm to say they're wrong," Lasn declares.
Sidebar: The Hunters
In search of the world's coolest sneakers
Freshnessmag.com may or may not meet Kalle Lasn's definition of "grass-roots capitalism." But the project by two young New Yorkers, Yu-Ming Wu and Danny Hwang, certainly comes straight from the grass roots -- and offers an interesting take on how a passion can turn a consumer into an entrepreneur.
Hwang grew up in Queens, Wu in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. The two met at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, but really bonded while exploring the nearby Lower East Side. A lot of what they did there was shop -- or as Wu puts it, "collect." Hwang was interested in urban art and graffiti; Wu had a very intense interest in sneakers. "Sneakers are huge in the urban market," he says. "Some of the artists who do graffiti art have done sneakers."
Because it's not easy to figure out where to find the coolest stuff, Hwang and Wu started Freshnessmag.com a year ago to share the information they gathered about their obsessions -- from art openings around the world to exclusive photographs of prerelease sneakers -- and to build an audience around it.
Wu is a kind of superconsumer; he calls himself a "hunter" and loves seeking out limited-edition Nikes, gathering information on new offerings and where and when they'll "drop." I went with him one day when a rare model called the Nike Laser -- a series of shoes decorated with an unusual laser-etching technique -- was set to be released. There is never a formal announcement for these events, let alone an advertisement; word just gets around. We met on the Lower East Side, outside a store called Alife Rivington Club, which has no sign and requires customers to press a button and get buzzed in.
As we dashed from one shop to another -- mostly obscure stores I'd never heard of, although the fashion store Barneys has started getting some limited-edition Nikes -- Wu kept bumping into fellow travelers through the world of exclusive sneakers, trading information here and there.
In a sense, the hunt is what Freshnessmag.com is about. The site has helped Hwang and Wu pick up invaluable contacts around the world. Wu has even been hired to design a Nike website, and in July Hwang moved to Taipei to work as a design director at an electronics company -- although that's not the end of Freshnessmag. In fact, the pair recently made their first moves toward converting their passions into profits. They are using their connections to launch a line of T-shirts under the name Acquired, and they collaborated with a Singapore-based artist and "sneaker customizer" called SBTG, who made a set of custom Nike sneakers that went on sale exclusively through the website at $350 each. All 18 pairs sold out in 10 minutes.
Rob Walker wrote about "The Buzz Guru" in Inc.'s March 2004 issue.