The opening minutes of “Elizabethtown” take place at the Pacific Northwest headquarters of Mercury Shoes, a corporate monolith closely modeled on Nike.Orlando Bloom plays Drew Baylor, a sneaker designer who’s spent eight years devising a high-concept running shoe called the Spasmotica, which looks like something designed for the crew of Apollo 15. The Spasmotica is to footware what “Cleopatra” or “Heaven’s Gate” were to movies — a spectacular flop, a $1 billion writeoff that threatens to send Mercury Shoes into a corporate tailspin. “We are about to hit a freefall plunge,” rants Alec Baldwin, who plays Mercury’s quixotic CEO Phil McVoss (not to be confused with Nike founder Phil Knight). It’s a great set piece, but as a caricature of the world’s largest sneaker maker, it’s wrong on several counts. Nike is a massively diversified company. It cranks out about 120,000 products a year, with net revenues projected to top $13 billion this year. The brash, Beaverton, Ore., marketing giant hasn’t had all that much riding on a single product since it introduced the Air Jordan in 1985. One blockbuster flop can’t topple the company. But for all the obvious differences between sneakers and movies, there’s an object lesson here for studio marketers. Nike’s success in the ephemeral, fad-driven sneaker business has broad implications for anybody struggling to reach a mass audience in our high-tech, hyper-fragmented consumer culture. NIKE’S NEWFANGLED sneakers have been a source of fascination to design geeks since the early 1970s, when U. of Oregon track coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman created the first waffle-sole running shoe by pouring liquid urethane into his wife’s waffle iron. But in recent years, the company has overhauled its design process. It’s spearheaded a movement toward mass customization that’s changing the shape of everything from cars to computers. And in the process, it’s taken control of its brand away from sneaker engineers like Drew Baylor and put it in the hands of consumers. High-concept prototypes like the Nike Air still have their place in the Nike universe. But the real design innovations are happening online, where consumers can now customize versions of popular staples like the Nike Dunk and Air Max. Log onto the customized footware site, NikeID.com and you can create your own shoe. Want your Nike Dunks in suede with an olive gray swoosh and imperial blue outsole? It will be delivered to your doorstep at the press of a button. Confused by the vast selection of fabrics, colors, symbols and textures? You can enter a drawing to win an appointment with a design expert at Nike’s customization studio, an exclusive retail outlet in downtown Manhattan. SNEAKER CUSTOMIZATION is a logical extension of a longstanding marketing practice at Nike: the creation of pent-up demand for a particular shoe through collectible limited editions. A few years ago, for instance, Nike produced only 420 pairs of a version of the Dunk it called the Hemp 420 Dunk. (For those not savvy enough to know such things, 420 is street slang for marijuana). If you doubt the appeal of such sneaker arcana, drive by the L.A. footware retailer Undefeated certain Friday nights and you’ll to see a line of sneaker collectors camped out like “Star Wars” fans in anticipation of the next day’s limited edition. How can studios channel that kind of brand evangelism? For starters, they might create their own versions of NikeID.com, Web sites where moviegoers are encouraged to design their own trailers and one-sheets. Fox Searchlight tried that with the “Garden State” campaign, which featured an online fan club complete with fan-generated media. Scroll through the bulletin board of the official “King Kong” fansite and you’ll find dozens of movie posters created by fans for fans. Mass customization remains an alien concept to the top-down corporate culture of Hollywood. But judging from NikeID.com, whose sales have tripled every year since 1999, it’s a trend that can’t be ignored. “The idea of customization is expected in our society at this point,” Nate Tobecksen, media relations manager at Nike, told me. “When you put design in the hands of the consumer, there’s a really strong sense of ownership of the product and the brand. It’s the most intimate form of marketing.”
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