What Lobster Dunks Can Teach Us About Marketing to Emotions

Advertising Is as Much About Dreams as It Is About Science

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Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
My 15-year-old son likes sneakers. No, he loves sneakers. He loves sneakers like I love Burgundies, rare books and stereo equipment. He thinks my wife and I are cruel because we believe that half a dozen pairs of sneakers are enough. I don't get it. Plus, he knows the names of at least 10 different shapes of pasta. (I thought there was spaghetti and macaroni until I was in college.) He happily paid $30 more for a new Easton baseball bat when the only difference over last year's model was a minor color change. He's finely tuned to the brands of virtually everything he wears and eats. He actually cares whether he drinks Coke or Pepsi. I'd like to ask all of you people working in advertising, what are we doing to our kids?

This weekend I got another perspective on youth marketing. After my Saturday morning workout at the gym (30 minutes on the Precor treadmill), I dropped off my laundry at Hillside Cleaners in Harvard Square. Half a block away I saw a mob of teenage boys snaking down the street and around the corner. The line started at Concepts, a new sneaker store on Brattle Street, where at 11 a.m. 200 pairs of Nike Lobster Dunk sneakers, some in special wooden crates, were going on sale for $150 each.
Lobster Dunks about to go on sale at Concepts.
Lobster Dunks about to go on sale at Concepts.
I also learned that the line formed on Wednesday afternoon and that a lot of these guys (sorry, I didn't see a single girl) had been living on the street for three days. Cool.

I walked over to look in the window of Concepts, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Lobster Dunks, although I'm not the best judge of sneakers. I like really boring Mephisto shoes and Paraboots. The Lobster Dunk sneakers were red. They had blue bands around the toes, like the rubber bands they put on lobster claws, and the interior was a red-checkered pattern like a tablecloth. Why not? I kind of liked them, but then I remembered that when I brought home a pair of Crocs, I was unanimously ordered to never wear them out of the house.

Enjoying the fact that I was actually someplace trendy for a change, I took a few pictures with my phone and have since put them on my Facebook page. While I didn't strike up any conversations, I did overhear one kid say that he thought he could get $650 for his pair of Lobster Dunks on eBay. That's a nice profit.

The brand relationship that these kids had with a pair of special edition sneakers didn't feel at all familiar to me. It struck me as tribal and urgent, without any clear relationship to personal identity or value. I had a hard time imagining that these kids could form a story about these sneakers other than they are new, they are scarce and "I want them." I could almost hear their collective hearts beating with desire.

This experience was a long way from the business conversations about brands that I have with the management teams of technology and life-science companies. We talk about thought leadership, useful content and complex buying processes. There's a lot of discussion about value and differentiation and very little focus on pure emotional desire. Sometimes it's a push to get the CEO of a technology company to believe that there's an emotional component to his or her brand when we know it exists.

My encounter with youth culture reminded me that I practice marketing a long way from the primal realm of pure desire. I don't see a sneaker account in my future, but the Lobster Dunks opened my eyes to the mystery of why we like what we like, and how far we will go to pursue what we desire. We can never forget that advertising is as much about dreams as it is about marketing science, regardless of the product. Creating and influencing dreams comes with an awesome responsibility, so use your power wisely.

Walking away from the mob scene in front of Concepts, a final thought ran through my mind: This is exactly how I'm going to feel when Apple releases that new 3G iPhone.
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