In 1967, the company that would become the world famous shoe brand Nike needed an identity for its new, state-of-the-art running shoe.
Co-founders Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman settled on "Aztec," according to Knight's autobiography. But industry giant Adidas had a track spike called "Azteca Gold" and was allegedly threatening to sue.
Chewing over their choices, the Oregon entrepreneurs fired the first volley of a decades-long rivalry with the German shoemaker. Knight explained how their displeasure with Adidas led to the eventual selection. "Who was that guy who kicked the (crap) out of the Aztecs?" Bowerman asked Knight. "Cortez," he responded. "Okay," Bowerman said, "let's call it the Cortez."
Battle of the sneakers
In the 50 years since that fateful (if impolitic) branding decision, Nike became both commercial behemoth and cultural phenomenon, catering to the feet of athletes and couch potatoes alike.
But by last year, the tide of the long battle had turned. Adidas AG was once again ascendant via two sneakers originally designed in the 1960s: the Stan Smith and the Superstar. They outsold every other kick in America and sent Adidas's share of the U.S. footwear market skyward by 83 per cent – with much of those gains swiped from Nike.
Nike really needed a winner – a surefire hit that would once again fill sidewalks and stadiums with Swooshes, from the runways of SoHo to the pressure-sensing track that Knight bought for the University of Oregon. In September of last year, Chief Executive Officer Mark Parker started laying the groundwork. He told analysts and investors that, like Adidas, Nike would look to past successes to win today's market. The Cortez, he announced, would be making a comeback.
The comeback kick
The reboot was big, even by Nike standards. In May, the company enlisted supermodel Bella Hadid for an elaborate photo shoot. First she reclined across the bench seat of a massive, Jimmy Carter-era car, the sneakers brilliant against the brown velour. Next she sat on a metallic-gold BMX bike, her shoes stuffed with white-cotton dad socks. Then she squatted down with a tiny skateboard, wearing a sports-bra and high-waisted, flared jeans, a nod to a decades-old shot of 1970s favourite Farrah Fawcett.
Sneakerhead blogs and fashion magazines ran the photos as a story unto themselves.
A few months later, Nike expanded the Cortez campaign, hiring Kendrick Lamar to be its pitchman, a partnership the musician blasted on social media with a plug for the old/new shoe.
Meanwhile, the company whipped its designers and factories up to speed, cranking out a steady stream of special Cortez editions to complement the classic iteration, with its red swoosh and blue stripe – what sneaker fanatics call "the Forest Gumps." In May, there was the "Compton" colorway, flicking at the shoe's popularity in Los Angeles street culture, and the "Kenny Moore" collection, a reference to an Oregon track star. In June, the company dropped a pair featuring its popular Flyknit upper material. In July, there was another collection, this time a collaboration with Mister Cartoon, a designer best known for celebrity tattoos and graffiti. Nike even stamped out a China edition, honouring the country's first world champion in track.
Nike was in for a rude awakening. Despite all the effort, customers just didn't seem to care.
Matt Powell, a sneaker analyst at NPD Group Inc., said Cortez sales this year have been "very minor," even with the media blitz. "No retailer is talking to me about this shoe," he said. Adding insult to injury is the cost of all this "demand creation," eating up 10 per cent of revenue. Hadid, Lamar and those excellent photographers don't come cheap.
There are still plenty of Cortez kicks – both standard and esoteric – filling the shelves at Stadium Goods, which has two sneaker stores in lower Manhattan. "Some of the marketing push has definitely resonated," said owner John McPheters. "Though it hasn't turned it into a high-volume shoe for us."
Nike declined to comment on the shoe's fortunes or provide any sense of how much money it has spent on its Cortez campaign.
Smart sneak(er) attack
In rebooting the Stan Smith line, Adidas crafted a campaign that was more shaggy than slick. First, it quietly pulled them from the market. Then it shipped customised pairs to select celebrities as it prepared to ramp up production. The subtle approach helped accelerate "normcore" momentum the sneakers already had on the fashion circuit.
In the end, the Stan Smith caught fire because a famous designer casually wore a pair out on a Paris catwalk, no fancy photo shoot required.??McPheters, at Stadium Goods, said the Air Max 97 reboot has been a hit in part because it was less hyped. "It's not something they've been milking for years," he said.
Nike CEO Parker is no longer talking about the Cortez
The future of Nike, Parker said, is in 3D modeling, an accelerated system for designing new sneakers and being a company geared to "better serve the consumer personally, at scale." In short, the company will increasingly react to its customer, rather than hope the opposite holds true. Its experience with the Cortez reboot-however inexpensive, given the company's size-shows this to be a reasonable strategic pivot.