Memorabilia. The ultimate demonstration of fully committed fandom, right? Now I’m not talking about the typical million-odd replica shirts sold each year by Manchester United; I don’t even mean the larger share of these that sell featuring a certain Wayne Rooney’s name and number on the back; no, I’m talking about the real up-close-and-personal stuff: Botham’s bat, Pele’s Pumas or Tiger’s tee-peg.
You name it, someone out there will probably try to buy it, sell it, or, in the case of OJ Simpson, nick it. Allegedly. So what’s the fascination with collectibles, and why will ordinarily sane people part with extraordinarily daft amounts of money to own them? To me it’s about either possessing a tangible part of your hero, a slice of sporting history…or, and this is where the big bucks come into play, both.
In terms of sporting collectibles, baseball rules the roost; from the $10,000 spent by chewing gum maker Curt Mueller on a piece of spent gum from Arizona Diamondbacks Luis Gonzalez, to the ball struck by Mark McGwire for his record-breaking 70th home run in 1998 – bought by comic book creator Todd McFarlane for a staggering $3.05m. Especially staggering when you consider the record was subsequently tainted by McGwire’s admission of steroid abuse during that season…the baseball shedding two-thirds of its auction value. Less home run, more own goal.
But if you think that sports fans have the market cornered (as well as signed, framed and independently authenticated) – think again. It’s the movie buffs that really know how to splash the cash to get their hands on a piece of Hollywood heroes or history.
In 2008, a miniature TIE Fighter model spaceship from the original Star Wars movie sold for over $400,000 and Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber made almost a quarter of a million dollars. Surprisingly though, in the memorabilia stakes, chic overcomes geek, with Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy dress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s selling for just under $1million and James Bond’s gadget-filled Aston Martin DB5 going for $4.1million.
What, might you ask, has any of this got to do with marketing, per se? Well, if you need to ask, then you obviously haven’t seen the recent Nike Mag campaign.
For those of you not aware, Nike Mags were the futuristic sneakers worn in Back to the Future II by hero Marty McFly when visiting Hill Valley, year 2015. For a quick reminder…
The self-lacing, self-illuminating hi-tops went on to become the most sought-after movie footwear since Dorothy Gale’s ruby slippers, whilst creating veritable product placement lore for their creators, Nike.
Many have crudely tried to repeat the trick, most notably Will Smith’s Converse-obsessed lead in I, Robot and, subsequently, the Puma-wearing inhabitants of The Island. Given that each member of the latter’s identically-shod population is, in fact, an irretrievably doomed clone of a corporate paymaster, you have to think that Puma really should have read the script before involving themselves.
What sets Nike apart from the aforementioned brands is that the trainers worn by Michael J. Fox’s character were simply an ‘ain’t-it-cool’ vision of the future for the movie’s teenaged audience, appropriate to Nike’s own brand trajectory; they weren’t linked to part of a specific marketing campaign, and were categorically not made available for purchase by their makers.
Hot on the heels of Total Film’s 2010 ‘Future Day’ hoax, forums were buzzing earlier this year with the rumour that Nike had taken out a patent on an ‘automatic lacing system’. Nike sneakers with power laces on their way? Not quite, but an ingeniously timely tease nonetheless.
In fact, the Oregon-based sporting superpower had finally chosen to make film buff dreams a reality, by producing a limited run of 1,500 pairs of ‘2011 Nike Mags’.
With illuminated LEDs that can be recharged after a long day switched on in their display cabinet (as though anyone is actually planning on wearing these) the 2011 models are, in fact, not of the self-lacing variety. This is rather unsubtly explained courtesy of the movie’s co-star, Christopher Lloyd – AKA Doc Brown – in the video below, where it becomes clear that said technology will only be available in 2015 (the year he and Marty visited in BTTF2), and that the DeLorean time machine has erroneously brought him to a point four years too early.
So, after all the hype and fervour, how can I get hold of a pair, you ask? Well, unfortunately you’ve already missed the boat: the entire lot were auctioned off over a 10-day period on eBay in early September. Although bidding started at $0.99, over-excited demand amongst collectors and scalpers alike saw standard prices kick off at around $4,000. Who pays $4k for a pair of slightly ugly-looking trainers? Well, no one, it would seem. The first pair actually sold for the princely sum of $37,000 to one Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu – that’s Tinie Tempah to you and me. His PR or Nike’s…it’s hard to tell.
But never fear: Nike’s ruse was all in a very good cause (besides fleecing a few overpaid musicians). It turns out that the brand had partnered with the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, all profits from the auctions going direct to the organisation.
Nike (with a little help from eBay) capitalised on the perfect storm of memorabilia-hungry Back to the Future fanboys, obsessive boxfresh sneakerheads and understandably fervent supporters of the Parkinson’s research projects – raising $5.7million in a mere 10 days. This was doubled to $11million by the ubiquitous Google, whose co-founder Sergey Brin has pledged to match donations to Fox’s foundation until 2012 to the tune of up to $50million.
Nike has demonstrated just how far ahead its thinking is from its competitors’ in respect of memorabilia, limited edition wares and product placement (even retrospectively). And who’s to say that the ‘2015 Nike Mags’ won’t be released to the general public in four years’ time anyway?
They’ve hit the sweet spot between collectible and commodity, and through the nostalgic lens of one of the most popular movie franchises of all time, have delivered a lesson in slow-burn brand marketing.
But coming back to the crux of the argument, people will do anything for their own part of an image, an icon, a moment or a man – heart over head, irrational and absurd. As Huey Lewis once put it: that’s the power of love.
By Jonathan Izzard on October 4th, 2011