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Case Study: Airwalk Invisible Popup Store

This is a story of a unique client relationship combined with fortuitous timing.

There exists a committed investment in creativity from both Y&R and Airwalk which enabled them to take full advantage of an opportunity exploring a new realm in retail and showcasing of their brands. 

Airwalk’s link with Y&R New York first came via Steve Whittier, a long-time fan of the brand, who has worked with them repeatedly over the last decade, including a redesign of their website in 2006, done in collaboration with Factory Design Labs in Denver. Over the years the relationship has grown to friendship, and along with that has come great trust. It has also created an environment of openness and a way of working that Steve likens to an art show collaborative with various players from all sides of the marketing mix putting something into the show.

Airwalk don’t have grand marketing budgets to play with but have never let that get in the way of ideas. Day-to-day they have a small in-house creative team, calling on Y&R to get in on the mix for anything special, and it doesn’t get much more special than a big anniversary. To celebrate their 25th year in business, Airwalk had a number of events planned throughout 2011, including the reissue of the Jim shoe, originally released in 1993 in a range of unusual materials.

Starting in 1986 Airwalk was one of the brands at the forefront of a skate/surf board revival and has retained a niche brand reputation despite their presence in Payless shoe stores and becoming part of a larger family of brands – not an easy task. But perhaps the reason why their shoes are still considered relevant by board sports fans is that the brand likes to do things that remind people that Airwalk has never played by the rules. Which is exactly what they wanted to convey with the reissue of the Jim, a shoe that captured their attitude and sense of humour and epitomised the brand when it was first released. Whatever they did to announce the reissue had to capture that same attitude and excitement caused by Jim’s unconventionality the first time around.

So, with about a week to go before the shoe went on sale, Eric Dreyer, VP Brand Management at Airwalk, called Steve Whittier and gave Y&R the brief, which was about as loose as they get: create a buzz and let people see that we’re still as relevant as we were 25 years ago.

"They don't overwork an idea, they're a very small team but they understand that when something’s right, it’s right. And when a client trusts you they put that trust into action. We just all went in the same direction and did it. There was no, revise that layout, put it into testing. They just said, this is right let’s do it."

Steve Whittier
Creative Director

One week. That’s all the time there was between the phone call and the actual event. One week is not a long time by anyone’s standards but sometimes, especially on a job with a restricted budget it’s good practice to knock the ideas out fast. Luckily for Airwalk, Y&R Entertainment (a global division of Y&R based in the New York office) had been working on an idea for a couple of months that seemed to be just perfect for the job – a virtual shop that could be placed in a precise geographical location for as long or as short a time as desired. While some of the tech had been around for a while, nobody had yet put the various elements together in this way. It was a new concept and Y&R Entertainment had nicknamed it the invisible pop-up store.

An invisible pop-up store is made possible using a mobile app platform that combines augmented reality [SB1] with geotagging[SB2] to create a site-specific retail experience. What that means is that, just like a regular store, the invisible pop-up has a physical location (two in Airwalk’s case), it just doesn’t have a physical presence. There are no bricks and mortar and no salespeople waiting at a till register, instead customers get to the right location and use their smartphones or iPads to make the store appear and interact with the items on offer.

Revolutionary as that is, the idea began life intended as a sort of stunt. A junior team, art director Alexander Nowak and copywriter Feliks Richter[SB3] , had not long been signed by Y&R when they took it to Kerry Keenan, Global Director of Creative Content at Y&R Entertainment. The division works on digital innovation where they own the intellectual property. Part of Kerry’s job is to oversee and explore new possibilities, most of which never see the light of day. As she says, “This was in conjunction with a million other things. If we have 50 projects maybe two or three come to fruition in a year.”

Straight away Kerry could see that Alex and Feliks had hit on something and that this was an idea with great potential.

"Alex and Feliks brought it to me as an idea but at that point they didn’t realise what a big idea they’d had. So I said, I need to think about it for a bit because this could be a whole new thing, a way of selling."

Kerry Keenan
Global Director of Creative Content

So, think about it she did and the idea got added into the mix of ongoing work at Y&R Entertainment when, a few weeks later, Airwalk called. The timing couldn’t have been better.

"Airwalk helped us to solidify the idea. There we were, developing augmented reality and geo-locations to reframe retail and then Airwalk came along through Steve, and their need helped us to frame the idea for the pop-up store. From initial conversation to the event was seven days. We had the idea in theory and Goldrun had a beta that we could adapt the idea to so we got really lucky.”

Kerry Keenan

So, with only a week to get everything together, Airwalk gave them the go-ahead to create two invisible pop-ups to sell the re-launched Jim. They weren’t just signing off on some cool technology though. They were trusting Y&R to get the story of the brand and the product right too. Sure, an invisible pop-up could be put anywhere, but Y&R knew that the places they chose had to make sense. So they picked Washington Square in New York City and Venice Beach, California, both locations that made perfect sense to the brand, the shoe and the people who would want to buy it.

At the same time, Airwalk was busy getting the word out. Working with Turner PR in New York, the brand team helped make sure that the work Y&R was doing would find the right audience. They sent press releases to tech bloggers, underground retail bloggers, and sneaker bloggers and they did all of the advertising as there was no money left in Y&R’s portion of the budget to advertise the event.

"We concentrated on production and the tech part and making sure we could pull it off, they helped tremendously with getting the word out there. Their PR contribution was huge, it was definitely a collaborative effort."

Kerry Keenan

The planning of these virtual experiences had certain benefits compared to planning an event in a built environment. Because the spaces are public and so busy already there were no worries about planning permits or health and safety inspections etc. Still, there was plenty of tech to keep them busy and they spent a full 24 hours in each location the day before launch, troubleshooting every possible scenario to make sure that everything would work.

 The next day, almost everyone involved from Y&R was on location in New York, not that you’d have noticed them ‘working’. With just one camera to film the goings on, they blended in with the usual crowd of students from NYU. It all looked like any other day. And then it began.

"The coolest thing was that you had the people who knew about it from the blogs who were literally walking around with their phones in front of their faces as if they were looking for something. Then once they captured a sneaker the phenomenon happened so suddenly ­– everybody was downloading the app and joining in. That’s New York, if someone looks up everyone looks up."

Steve Whittier

Before long, on both the East and West coasts, passersby became participants as more and more people wanted in on the strange goings on happening before them. Suddenly it wasn’t just sneaker freaks holding their phones in the air, anyone and everyone with a smart phone or tablet was getting involved.  

Once they were in the right spot and had downloaded the app, users could see virtual versions of the two available styles. After that, they simply photographed their shoe of choice to get an exclusive code guaranteeing them one of the 300 limited edition pairs. But this was never about selling shoes.

'It wasn’t a matter of how many shoes we sold, it’s a matter of the message that we went out there and did this... "This (the Jim) is an innovative product that reminds people what Airwalk’s core is and that they’re always looking at new ways to do something. It wasn't about shifting units, it was about telling consumers we're still here, we’re still relevant, and we're still an important player within skate/action sports culture."

Steve Whittier

If they were looking for buzz, they certainly got it, and not just in underground/digital media and fanzines. In New York, the Today show picked up on it in a segment on trends for 2011 and the technology was soon adapted to other retail experiences for other brands. Both business and consumers were talking about augmented reality retail and Airwalk had done it first.

They’d managed to create something where commerce, marketing, design and innovation intersected. Selling a collector’s item product through special edition marketing, and getting a message about Airwalk out to a much wider audience.

It’s true that the client wasn’t concerned about sales margins on this project, it was always about the brand and their audience and reminding people that nobody does it like Airwalk. They probably weren’t expecting the reported $5M in earned media – a phenomenal turnaround for them on such a small happening and a massive return on the budget invested. Y&R also benefitted from the project, according to Kerry, “The company that owns Airwalk saw this on the Today show and they called our new business director asking for a meeting so it led to a collaboration with them who are a much bigger company. So this tiny little thing led to a bigger relationship for Y&R Brands.”

Relationship and collaboration, two words that make it clear how important this way of working is at Y&R, equal in fact to the importance placed on supporting creativity and finding new ways of doing things. Their mission, they say, is to ‘Resist the Usual’. Job well done on this occasion.

If you think you have a campaign that deserves a Pencil, enter your work into the D&AD Awards and see if our judges agree. When it comes to awards, nothing matters more.

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