A few months ago, I walked into SoHo Adidas store with a streetwise Manhattan buddy.

“Look,” I said with a slightly bemused smirk on my face. “They’re selling Stan Smith tennis shoes.”

The smirk seemed reasonable enough. The shoes were a relic from the early ‘70s when Stan reached No. 1 armed only with a comb-over hairstyle, a wooden racquet, and his trademark white-and-green leather sneakers.

The Stan Smith tennis shoes from the '70s can now be found in a hip Manhattan store.
The Stan Smith tennis shoes from the '70s can now be found in a hip Manhattan store.

So why were Stan’s antique sneakers now being showcased so prominently in the middle of a flagship Manhattan store?

My friend shot me a glance of barely concealed pity. “They’re cool. My wife wears them everywhere.”

His wife is very cool, smart, and fashionable, but I still wasn’t convinced. (I’d once lived in New York when fashionable women were wearing ugly Australian UGG boots as a fashion statement).

A week later, fresh from INMA’s excellent Silicon Valley study tour, I caught up with my sister-in-law who works in the fashion business in Los Angeles. She confirmed I’d been living in a parallel universe. The Stan Smith sneaker was one of the year’s hottest fashion trends.

At this point, I was more focused on narrowing down my learnings from five intense days on Earl Wilkinson’s INMA bus out of San Francisco. But I also couldn’t shake my curiosity into the baffling success of a 52-year-old sneaker named after a 79-year-old man.

Then it became clear.

There were plenty of similarities between the Stan Smith phenomenon and some of the key lessons from Silicon Valley.

  1. Simplicity: The shoe is a classic of minimalist design – understated but immediately distinctive. The best digital products all have an elegant simplicity about them.

  2. Patience: The Stan Smith success didn’t happen by accident. Adidas began planning its strategy seven years ago. Digital success rarely happens overnight. Even the best products take years of development and improvement before a critical mass adopts them.

  3. Quality first: Media companies often fall into the trap of flooding the market with too much generic digital content. You only have to look at your own Web stats to see how the quality stories and videos normally rise to the top.

    Likewise, there are thousands of sneakers on the market that all do basically the same thing. So what makes the Stan Smiths stand out? The trusted quality. Getting the product right then building the audience is in the DNA of every Silicon Valley company.

  4. Backend matters: For Silicon Valley companies, this means the coding is at the heart of any great idea to allow for flexibility down the track. Adidas couldn’t have handled the explosion in demand without a tech foundation to handle supply across 50 states.

  5. Know the market: Adidas made a brilliant move straight from the Apple playbook. It restricted supply to create demand. The sneakers had always been on the market, but the ultimate strategy was for them to go mainstream in 2015 so they withdrew the sneakers completely from sale for two years.

  6. Create a buzz: The quickest way to do that is with celebrity endorsement, but it has to be the right type of celebrity. For a product like Medium, getting Bono or Melissa Gates to engage in intelligent debate is pure gold.

    Adidas targeted influencers in sport, music, and fashion by sending out sent out personalised shoes to celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres with their caricature on the tongue.

  7. Video: I’ve thrown in this one because media companies everywhere are trying to maximise their video output to feed the exponential demand from users, whether it is on their own Web sites, Facebook, or YouTube. Here is the 2014 Adidas relaunch video after the shoes went back on the market. 



  8. Social: Adidas used the celebrities’ social feeds as a Trojan Horse to spread the message. Media companies are continually trying to find the sweet spot of engagement with social sites, particularly now that they are all experimenting with revenue share models.

  9. Personalisation: One size fits all rarely works in the modern world. People want a product and service tailored to them wherever and whenever they want it.

    That’s a challenge for a generic white sneaker, but Adidas added the personalisation element in a few different ways. After the celebrity caricatures spread the buzz, the company offered the same service to individuals in a social contest.

    Changing the trim colours beyond the original green was an obvious step. Plus it also invited designers in to offer their own twist on the shoe for public sale. It was an effective way of increasing the profit – especially when the basic US$75 shoe is transformed into a US$455 pair by Belgian designer Raf Simons.

    Adidas made clever use of Twitter and the personalisation trend with this campaign.
    Adidas made clever use of Twitter and the personalisation trend with this campaign.


  10. Data: The content-is-king refrain is being replaced by “data is king.” It’s a key mantra for media companies to remember as they engage in the delicate dance with Facebook and other big companies that hold the keys to their audience data. You can be certain that Adidas captured as much data as possible about everyone who bought the shoes.

  11. It works: This is an obvious but essential requirement of any product that’s often forgotten during the development process.

  12. Take a risk: Adidas didn’t have to do it. But it did.

I’ll leave the final word to Alan Mutter, our extremely wise, witty, and straight-shooting guide for the INMA Silicon Valley tour. He rode shotgun with Earl at the front of the bus.

Alan has serious newspaper pedigree, but he’s lived in San Francisco long enough to know his way around the digital wanna-bes, could-have-beens, and genuinely gifted. I ran my Stan Smith theory past him for comment.

This is his reply: “There is a lot to be learned from the example of the Stan Smith sneaker, and I agree with all the success factors you’ve noted. The only additional perspective I would add is that the company took a commodity product and gave it a personality that differentiated it from all the other great sneakers.

Owing to the fact that a great deal of national, international, sport, and business news is widely and conveniently available, the news has become a commodity, too. But local publishers have the ability to give their products the personality and authenticity that modern consumers are seeking.”