When it comes to modern retail, have we reached peak collab?
The practice, which happens most typically between brands and other brands—or brands and influencers—seems more ubiquitous than ever.
But what is it about these partnerships that drives near-crazed consumers to buy with such gusto? Even knowing that another exclusive “drop” surely lurks around the corner, shoppers still line up to get their hands on the limited-edition pieces.
Collaborations, at this point, seemingly have become a permanent fixture in the footwear industry.
“Athletic sneaker folks have been able to commercialize this really well, if you think of the athletes that those brands are associated with,” said Bobby Stephens, a digital retail and consumer products analyst for Deloitte. “Other more casual footwear brands use collabs to do one-off brand building—to do cross-audience pollination from both sides.”
Stephens said that brands typically choose collaborative partners that allow them to reach new demographics that they may not have been able to penetrate with their existing product lines alone.
“It really isn’t about selling a ton of shoes. They’re generally limited runs. It’s brand building—a way to attach themselves to a higher or different type of entity,” he explained.
And according to Stephens, sales are secondary.
“I don’t think the goal is ‘We’re going to sell a ton of this specific collab,’ because there’s so much marketing, and so much additional attention around product design and licensing of the likeness, that it’s not necessarily going to be a profitable shoe—even at a high price point,” he explained.
Instead, he said, the investment in collaborations is an investment in a brand’s future, helping to excite core consumers and acquire new brand loyalists.
Usually, marketing around these partnerships is grassroots-based, he said, not blowout campaigns.
By segmenting consumer groups and enacting partnerships with those from different viewpoints, brands can avoid collab fatigue. “It gives them each the time and space they need to be successful as attention-grabbers,” Stephens noted.
Apparel and footwear are relatively low-growth markets, Stephens asserted, relative to technology, which always evolves. “Any areas where you can drive a blip of growth… You’ll do it,” he added.
And, he said, the cycle shows no signs of ending. “Brands will continue to look to collaborations to set themselves apart.”
Stephens’ assertions have proven true for Crocs, which got its first taste of the collab game only two years ago—an experience that prompted a strategy revamp.
“If you go back to 2017 with our Christopher Kane and Balenciaga collaborations, we didn’t knock on their doors, they knocked on ours,” said Tiffany Gansler, the brand’s senior director of wholesale marketing.
The high-fashion moment proved pivotal for the brand, known for its homely foam clogs. Because what the brand lacked in sex appeal, it made up for in potential.
Designers, artists and influencers saw the simple shoe as a blank canvas for their own personal brands. Crocs’ roster of partnerships has grown quickly and in sometimes surprising ways.
Perhaps the most notable continuing Crocs collaboration to-date is with Post Malone, the face-tattooed rapper beloved by Gen Z.
Recognizable by his grungy appearance and multiple inkings, Malone wouldn’t necessarily come to mind as a possible partner for the brand, which up until recently, was most popular with Baby Boomers, young families and the healthcare workers.
But Malone, already a fan of the shoes, wore them religiously on stage and on social media.
“He’s an organic fan,” asserted Gansler. “He was wearing Crocs long before we decided to collaborate with him. It was actually through an Instagram post that we said, ‘Hey, do you want to do something with us?’”
Gansler echoed Stephens’ sentiments around collabs driving strategy not sales. “We’re not really driving to do large-scale, high-volume collaborations,” she said, adding they “play in spaces that are a bit unexpected.”
Of Gen Z’s and millennials’ oft-mentioned buying power, she added, “We have to do our due diligence and focus on this new generation, because it’s the future of our business.”
Brand collaborators focus on timing, tactical execution, production and making sure that both parties share the same objectives in terms of marketing and distribution.
“With our first collab with Post Malone, from first concept to release it was maybe 90 days,” Gansler said. The simple Crocs silhouette lends itself to small aesthetic adjustments and quick turnaround.
Gansler added that some collabs are created to coincide with specific events or “cultural moments,” noting a shoe released with country music star Luke Combs that debuted at the Country Music Awards festival. “The line was out the door,” she said, and that was the only place and time that consumers could buy the product.
For Combs, whose audience turned out in droves, the release was fitting. Post Malone’s collection, by contrast, was released online only, where his digitally native fans spend much of their time.
“That’s all part of what we agree upon with our partners—the where, the when, the how,” Gansler said of the varied distribution methods. “We try not to have one cookie-cutter model, because the beauty of what we’re doing is trying to be fun, engaging and authentic.”
At heritage sandal brand Teva, the same philosophy of symbiosis applies. The brands, artists and retailers that the company considers for collaborations must embody its values of adventure, expression and culture, said product line manager Mark Magruder.
“We always have an ever-evolving list of brands that we’re looking to partner with. Sometimes partnerships come about organically, sometimes they come about methodically, but they’re always strategic,” he explained.
The collaborations “allow new consumers and our existing consumers to see Teva in a fresh light,” Magruder said, adding that the two brands’ product teams work closely to ensure that the resulting collection is exciting for both sets of consumers.
When it comes to process specifics, Magruder said that Teva and its brand partner will typically engage in a “variety of collaborative brainstorming sessions” from which design concepts are created, and then volleyed back and forth for opinions and revisions.
“For instance, in our most recent collaboration with Outdoor Voices, we had OV’s swimwear collection in mind when designing these sandals,” Magruder said. “We ensured that inspirations and colors were shared across their swimwear collection and our sandals. The end result was a pretty fun, and color-cohesive, capsule collection.”
The brand partners also must agree on a distribution strategy before rolling out the collection. That includes agreeing upon the collection’s volume, along with selecting retail channels.
“Typically, we start with a cap on units to be sold to ensure the product isn’t over-distributed,” Magruder said.
“We compile a mutually agreed upon list of the best accounts in the world to represent our partnership. Then, we arm our sales people to go out and sell the product to these retailers.” Typically, he said, both sales teams attend these meetings together to emphasize the cooperation between brands—and the continuity of the partnership.
“It’s always fun to see our collaboration efforts come to life on a global stage,” he said.
Whether collaborations represent lasting relationships between brands and their partners or they’re simply an opportunity to try something new, their impact on the footwear industry has been palpable.
“Even though it’s become sort of a transparent marketing ploy, if you get someone’s favorite person or brand, it won’t matter,” said Deloitte’s Stephens.
He pointed to scarcity as a driving force behind consumer appetite. “There’s a segment of the population that likes to have and wants to have things that not many other people have.”