Why Brands Should Stop Giving Influencers Free Sneakers

Pay for your kicks.

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Written by Russ Bengtson (@russbengtson)

Consider this a disclaimer: I am just as guilty of some of the things I will lay out here as anyone else. Which, in this case, only further validates the points I will attempt to make. I have been getting sneakers for free for a long time now (one of the first pairs I got seeded were FILA Stack IIs—the first time they came out) and I have undoubtedly promoted pairs through social media that I had no intention of wearing. Not that I’m ever going to tell which pairs those were. And while I love getting free sneakers, especially before they release, I do this for the greater good. Sorry, me.

End seeding, sneaker companies. End it now.

This will not be a popular position. End seeding? No more free sneakers? But… but… how will we know who the influencers are? Here’s the thing, though: How are we supposed to know now? Without seeding, things will actually be much clearer.

Let’s start with a definition of “influencer.” No one can be influenced who doesn't want to be. So it's more of a "position" determined by others. One can aspire to be an influencer, but not actually make themselves one. Deeming yourself an influencer is the equivalent of giving yourself a nickname—in other words, it never works (unless you’re Kobe Bryant). But that’s not to say being an influencer is a powerless position. Because if you truly are one, people pay attention to everything you do. Because real influencers actually influence. Shocking, I know.

One can aspire to be an influencer, but not actually make themselves one.

Seeding is a blatant attempt by sneaker companies to short-circuit the process, to get product they wish to be promoted in the hands of those most capable of doing said promoting. Now, this in and of itself is not wrong. Sneaker companies are in this to make money, not friends. And if grassroots marketing is truly effective, a few pairs of sneakers distributed before they hit retail is a small price to pay for a huge social reach.

But here’s where things gets complicated. It would be one thing if seeded pairs were distributed with no expectation of anything being given in return. And if those receiving seeded pairs did some curating on their own by only promoting (or wearing) pairs they deemed acceptable and fitting their aesthetic. In other words, if influencers only pushed pairs that they would have bought anyway. Let’s call these people “legit influencers.” That is rarely what happens. Instead companies package their offerings elaborately—complete with specific hashtags to use and accounts to call out—and would-be influencers post everything they get, in some sort of ever-increasing “got mine” sneaker arms race, perhaps driven by fear of being left off the next seeding list. (Hint: If your entire social media feed can be branded “advertorial,” you’re doing it wrong.)


This is not social media’s fault per se, but the explosion of what is, in effect personal media has blurred—if not totally erased—the lines of what is useful and what is not, and of who has the reach to actually be an influencer. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the only people the average kid (or adult, for that matter) could possibly influence were the people he or she was seen by in real life. Conversely, a rapper wearing a new pair of sneakers on an album cover or in a video made tremendous impact, with the more notable examples being remembered even 30 years on. (That said, my personal taste was affected more by high school classmates than by anyone famous. Er, except Michael Jordan.)

Let the real sneakerheads go back to buying sneakers they actually like—which, no matter how many pairs they get for free, they likely still do anyway—and let the shameless grifters move on to something else.

Things have changed tremendously since then. Not only has social media given everyone a platform, but the advent of sneaker blogs (and their own related social media) has made it nearly impossible for sneaker companies to control how their own product is revealed. Most releases are seen first as an unauthorized leak long before the first celebrity (or quasi-celebrity, or quasi-celebrity’s best friend, or quasi-celebrity’s best friend’s assistant) gets their hands on a pair. And by the time they post their own photos, many a would-be consumer has already made up his or her mind about the sneaker. Thus even as the seeding reach has spread further, the need for it has diminished, to the point where it’s worth questioning whether it’s even worth doing anymore. 

Enough is enough. Enough of the entitlement, enough of the “look how connected I am” posts, enough of the grassroots marketing techniques that are as ersatz as Astro Turf. Let the real sneakerheads go back to buying sneakers they actually like—which, no matter how many pairs they get for free, they likely still do anyway—and let the shameless grifters move on to something else. Let the self-proclaimed influencers dry up and fade away. Besides, by the time you can buy those sneakers your favorite influencer is peddling, they’ll have long since pawned them off to the local consignment shop (VVVVVVNDS) and moved on to the next next next one.

What’s the worst that can happen? Sneaker companies spend less money and make more. People have to think hard about what sneakers they spend their money on, and which pairs they show off. And maybe, just maybe, “influencing” becomes a little more authentic. Imagine that.Perhaps this is overly cynical. Maybe the system isn’t as irrevocably broken as it seems to be. But what’s the harm in shutting it down for a while just to see? Declare a month “seeding-free month.” By all means continue to hook up the athletes—no one expects to see LeBron James looking for size 16 Soldiers at Finish Line on game day—but cut everyone else off. Let Trinidad James put on that Anthony Davis disguise to shop at Foot Locker, let all the retail guys moonlighting as bloggers cop out of their own stockrooms. And make those who write about sneakers—hello!—actually spend money at those sneaker boutiques they write about so often.

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