Sneaker maker takes to tuners

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What do sneakers and cars have in common?

Besides the fact that they help get you where you're going, both are central to the culture of customization that's growing among American consumers who increasingly want not only more choices in the store but also the opportunity make the stuff they buy wholly their own. The tuner culture-a hip-hop version of the 1960s hot-rod hobby whose adherents now drop thousands of dollars a year to trick out their vehicles-has been followed by a sneaker-customization craze that has turned footwear into objects of art. And one marketer has found a way to tap into both.

both feet

A distant second to Foot Locker in the athletics retail business, Finish Line, known for its large stores and wide range of apparel and accessories, is supplementing a traditional marketing approach with one that homes in on enthusiasts in the sneaker community. In recent months, the Indianapolis-based retailer has jumped into the customization space with both feet. It's sponsoring a customized sneaker tour called Sneaker Pimps and co-sponsoring the popular car show Hot Import Nights, where DJs and moody lighting creates a nightclub atmosphere.

Sneaker Pimps, a tour begun by sneakerheads in Australia and Asia in 2003, is a series of shows devoted to vintage and celebrity-signed sneakers as well as art inspired by the footwear. Finish Line and New York boutique branding agency Heavy co-opted that tour, coordinating dates with the schedule for Hot Import Nights.

"Finish Line gets overlooked in the marketplace a lot," said Sean Salter, managing director-creative services for the retailer. "By reaching these influencers and showing them the wide variety of products available in the stores we have spread the word." Sales for Finish Line have been up, with the company reporting a second-quarter sales increase of 15%. However, Mr. Salter was hesitant to attribute recent successes wholly to the foot traffic and word-of-mouth and online buzz created by these efforts.

Finish Line signed on Heavy last spring to help improve a brand-recognition level that lagged behind the competition, especially Foot Locker, with its more than 3,000 stores. By contrast, Finish Line owns fewer than 600 stores.

"We started thinking about ways that Finish Line could create a marketing platform that they essentially could own, something they could stake out and, over time, build and be associated with," said Simon Assaad, co-CEO of Heavy.

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