Nike’s virtual studio is getting physical.
On Tuesday, the sneaker behemoth announced the first physical product to come out of .Swoosh, the digital-goods platform it introduced late last year. It’s a black-and-white, low-top version of Nike’s Air Force 1 with .Swoosh branding and details, dubbed the TINAJ, as in “This Is Not a JPEG,” a slogan that also appears on the shoe.
When it drops in Nike’s SNKRS app on Oct. 20, instead of having to compete against countless shoppers and bots, only those who previously purchased and virtually unboxed one of the digital Our Force 1s Nike released earlier this year will have the chance to purchase it. Nike hasn’t said exactly how many people that amounts to, but nearly 53,000 .Swoosh members bought at least one of the tokens when they first went on sale.
How valuable a prize members will consider it remains to be seen, given a minimal Air Force 1 isn’t the sort of hyped shoe that hordes of customers clamour to get. And it’s not Nike’s first time granting exclusive access to a shoe, though it typically uses factors like a shopper’s location, activity in SNKRS and earlier purchase attempts. When it released a series of Dunks with Off-White in 2021, 90 percent of invites went to members who’d been unable to score one of its prior Off-White releases over the past two years — a sum that probably far exceeded 53,000 people.
Still, exclusivity is currency in the sneaker world, and the release demonstrates how Nike is thinking about using its NFT-based platform to engage what it views as an increasingly important fan group while letting it promote membership, which remains one of the most powerful tools in its kit.
Over the years, Nike has made efforts to appeal to different “obsessed communities,” as Ron Faris, vice president and general manager of Nike Virtual Studios, once put it. That was back in 2019, when Faris was still vice president of the SNKRS app, where he landed after forming a start-up within Richard Branson’s Virgin Group that created mobile experiences for fan communities. Nike ultimately acquired the start-up and brought Faris on board.
While those communities have generally centred on sports and physical activities such as basketball, skating, training and running, Nike has expanded its outreach to groups such as gamers as well in recent years, launching experiences in Roblox and Fortnite for example.
It’s still becoming clear exactly how .Swoosh will tie in. The digital Our Force 1 sneakers Nike sold are NFTs that can’t yet be used in a game, though Nike has announced a partnership with game developer EA Sports that it says will make some .Swoosh virtual products available in future titles. But Nike’s bet is that digital goods and digital activities will increasingly occupy its customers’ time, and probably a decent slice of their wallets.
It wants its virtual creations to be more than just collectables, however. It sees them as a way to engage customers in a variety of ways.
“We see a [virtual] shoe that one day unlocks access to a pre-order of a physical shoe, or one day unlocks access to a token-gated chat with our designers where you can help shape certain decisions around what colourway we launch with, or another day where you could unlock the wearable version in your favourite game or in your favourite immersive experience,” Faris told BoF around .Swoosh’s launch last year.
The Air Force 1 low TINAJ is a step in delivering on that promise. In a live session on the SNKRS app Tuesday, Nike designer Bryce Wong explained some of the design choices the team made, like the simple colour palette to make sure it was easily wearable, as well as the .Swoosh detailing on the insole and the tongue. The aim, he said, was to “make it a little more special for our community,” and those who buy the shoe will get a free digital version as well. (To be clear, the shoe isn’t sold as a pre-order, a model that comes with its own challenges, as Puma has learned. Nike said it has already manufactured the shoes and they will ship immediately after launch.)
During the SNKRS live session, Nike also teased future physical .Swoosh products, including a T-shirt, a hoodie and more footwear. Much more seems still to come as the company looks to attract members and build ongoing relationships, which is the real goal.
“Our members now engage with us more frequently, buy more, and are more loyal to our brands,” chief executive John Donahoe said on the company’s earnings call in June. “Once members join our ecosystem, they are increasing their lifelong sport journeys with us.”