Six-sided story: the rise of creative branding in sneaker box design
Shoe boxes were once practical devices for transporting footwear from the store to the closet. Now, as more consumers sign up for their sneakerhead membership card, they are becoming an essential piece of brand collateral – revered by sportswear fans and poured over by marketers.
The sneaker box’s elevation into a form of art, branding and eye-catching marketing was the subject of the Paper and Packaging Board’s recent pop-up museum in New York. Curated by Matt Halfhill, the founder of sneaker blog Nice Kicks, the space encouraged visitors to view the shoebox – in all of its configurations – as more than just a cardboard container.
“We designed the Shoebox Museum experience to spotlight a piece of sneaker culture that has been reimagined many times over, but never gotten the credit it deserves,” says Halfhill, who tapped into his own personal collection to line the walls of the space.
For the publisher and his fellow sneaker obsessives, such boxes are now as collectible as the shoes they house.
“Shoes don’t last forever,” he explains. “They’re made of materials like foams and rubbers and they break down over time. Shoeboxes will outlive the shoe, and as there’s a heightened awareness of the negative effect of plastics, cardboard has become top of mind for many consumers.”
It’s hard to tell which came first: collectors’ demand for distinctive sneaker boxes or brands’ supply of ever-experimental designs. Regardless, consumers’ penchant for storing, hoarding, photographing and publishing this packaging has pushed sportswear labels to become more creative with such creations.
“The shoebox is the first touchpoint the consumer has with the product ... and I think it’s something that has been overlooked for many years," says Halfhill. "Brands are now starting the story of the shoe with the box itself.”
Here are some examples of the labels that did just that...
Adidas is one of the few sportswear brands not to have deviated too far from its earliest shoebox design. Since it first started mass producing packaging the brand’s three stripes have appeared in some capacity across all its boxes, helping to maintain the label’s identity.
Halfhill notes its customary cross-package design means consumers “don’t have to open it or read it – they just recognize those stripes and know it’s an Adidas pair.”
Puma’s ‘Turn It On’
The late 80s saw Puma release what it claimed to be the world’s first computer-powered running shoe, which measured step count and performance through the futuristic interface of a 16-pin plug-in cable. A few years later it unveiled its Disc System – a quest for the elusive laceless trainer shoe.
This futuristic period inspired the computer-friendly end line ‘Turn It On’, which appeared on boxes in the early 1990s. It was one of the first times a sneaker brand had stamped an advertising slogan so prominently across its packaging.
Nike’s cereal boxes
In one of marketing’s stranger brand collaborations, Nike hooked up with General Mills and NBA star Kyrie Irving to produce three cereal/sneaker mashups. Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Crunch and Kix all received the b-ball treatment, while their vertical shoeboxes featured the colorful mascots and ‘nutritional information’ of sugary breakfast foods.
“General Mills was one of the first companies to make branding on boxes a thing,” says Halfhill, “so this one is really special.”
Vans’ flat envelope box
The compact nature of Vans’ canvas shoes has made for a compact box design that has stayed relatively consistent since the company’s formation in the 1970s. Rather than featuring a pop-off lid, the packaging comprises a singular piece of cardboard that tucks neatly into itself.
“It’s not a very common design, but practically speaking it works very well because the lid creates a flat surface on all sides,” says Halfhill.
Nike SB’s colorways
The Nike SB Dunk line was created with skateboarders in mind back in 2002. Ever since, the king of US sportswear has put out its newest iterations of the cult shoe in different colored boxes every year.
The tradition has proven so popular that diehard fans often refer to the time of release by the shades: there’s “the orange box era”, “the silver box era”, and so on.
Knowing this, Nike turned the relationship between shoe and shoebox on its head, releasing a special version of the SB in the exact color of that year’s box. It’s the ephemeral packaging design, alongside the sneakers’ exclusivity, that led Highsnobiety to dub the SB as “the most collectible sneaker of its time”.
Adidas Yoda Superstars’ blister pack
Adidas broke with the shoebox altogether when it launched its Star Wars-inspired Superstars. Riffing off the childhood nostalgia invoked by the shoe, the brand chose to package it like a toy in vacuum-packed plastic and cardboard.
The sneaker itself was, according to Halfhill, inspired by Yoda’s home planet of Dagobah.
Air Jordan’s luxe packaging
The Air Jordan’s represented Nike’s commitment to basketball and the talents of Michael Jordan from the mid-80s. The Air Ship – the first shoe that made headlines from the reported $2.5m deal – was famously banned from the court for not adhering to the NBA’s standards; Nike took the publicity and used it to advertise the original Air Jordan 1.
The sneaker has since spawned its own brand, logo and marketing team, as well as a limited edition approach to packaging. No two iterations come in the same box and, since the turn of the millennium, container designs have become more and more creative.
The 2002 AJ XVII was the first to be housed in a briefcase, for instance, while the 2009 version came in a geometric, five-sided origami fold.
“It is the only shoe that I know of that has come in all three types of box: removable lid in 1995, hinge top in 2000 and slide out drawer in 2011,” adds Halfhill.