Donald Glover, Adidas, Nike, and the Fight for Cool

Donald Glover's Nizza shoes for Adidas are the latest in a long line of celebrity sneaker collaborations.

Adidas

Recently, in a group chat, I expressed excitement over an unlikely piece of work: a new short film from Adidas. The sportswear corporation, which now also counts Beyoncé as a "creative partner," had teamed up with Donald Glover to make a series of vignettes featuring him and the actress Mo'Nique trading comic tête-à-têtes. Directed by longtime collaborator Ibra Ake, the film embodies Glover's typical patchwork: It's wonky, narratively indeterminate, and crammed with wit and the occasional inside joke.

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The film, of course, wasn't just creativity for creativity's sake; it is essentially one long conceptual ad for Glover's Adidas Original line of sneakers, which release Friday. Still, the vignettes are far more engaging than the average shoe-shilling spot. As a cultural worker, Glover's art stings. Whether as the creator-star of Atlanta or as his music-making alter ego Childish Gambino, his aesthetic practice strives to awaken and unnerve (just look to the video for "This Is America" , his berserk trap-gospel from last May). It's always felt counter-cultural in that sense. Glover's work lives outside the mainstream, as critique. With Adidas, his art becomes the mainstream. This, coupled with Beyoncé's just-announced partnership—which includes a collaboration on a signature Adidas collection in addition to expanding her athleisure line, Ivy Park—suggests Adidas is jockeying for a larger cultural footprint. But it registers as more than that, too. It's the megabrand's attempt to define culture, not simply contribute to it.

Today, especially so, sportswear companies are no longer just looking to athletes as brand emissaries, but for social-media-savvy cultural figures of all sorts. Puma's famously worked with Rihanna and Solange. Converse has tapped Millie Bobby Brown and Vince Staples for campaigns. Back in 2016, Complex declared Jay-Z's 2003 Reebok collaboration, the S. Carter, an industry-shifting release. Early rap stalwarts Run-DMC fashioned the Adidas shell-toe into an emblem of cool and were ultimately given their own line. A fundamental partnership like that one opened a pathway for cross-branding deals between the sportsworld and the larger culture. Adidas has since partnered with basketball star James Harden, soccer phenom Lionel Messi, Grammy-winning producer Pharrell Williams, rapper Pusha-T, and fashion maven Stella McCartney.

Glover's addition certainly adds cultural currency to Adidas' war chest, but it's the partnership the company has forged with Beyoncé that will likely rival, and perhaps dwarf, the magnetism Kanye West was able to generate, and has wildly sustained, since he signed with the brand in 2015. In that time, he's released both apparel and footwear that, aesthetically, merges sleek cuts and monochrome colorways with an eye for the dystopian. Collectively known as Yeezy Season, releases have created a mania of desire. On Instagram, West's status has helped embolden the rabidness around influencer culture; which has in turn made the brand seem that much more in-demand. Even as Nike outpaces Adidas in sales, and even as West has fallen out of public favor in recent months, he remains an uncommon reservoir of cool for Adidas (so much so, megachurch preachers have fully bought into the hype).

Of course, Nike is Nike. It's market cap currently sits at nearly $140 billion, compared to Adidas' $50 billion, and consultancy firm Brand Finance estimated Nike's brand value was worth about $28 billion in 2018, a figure that overshadowed not only Adidas but other apparel companies like H&M, Puma, Hermes, Uniqlo, and Louis Vuitton. You can't escape Nike's reach and power. It eclipses. Part of that has to do with how the company has firmly commanded industry rhetoric—the look and perception of cool—since hiring ad agency Wieden+Kennedy in 1982. The firm minted generation-defining slogans like "Just Do It" and "Bo Knows," and later produced a vibrant series of commercials featuring Spike Lee (as the fictional character Mars Blackmon) and Michael Jordan in the 1980s and 90s.

In that time, Nike has, officially and unofficially, corralled some of the most important cultural figures across sports and entertainment into its hive. Serena Williams. LeBron James. Lance Armstrong. Kendrick Lamar. Tiger Woods. Kobe Bryant. Drake. Tatyana McFadden. Andre Agassi. On Travis Scott's "Sicko Mode," one of the most popular and streamed songs of 2018, Nike found itself in the middle of the most exciting cultural tempest of the year. Featured on the song's guest verse is Drake, who raps, referencing Nike's swoosh logo and Adidas' three stripes, "checks over stripes, that's what we like." Months prior, Adidas emissary Pusha-T had released "The Story of Adidon," a diss track against Drake, who was then rumored to be signing a deal with Adidas. The brands had somehow become weapons in a simmering rap war. It was yet more proof of Nike's transcendent authority: as both cultural product and the culture.

Donald Glover recently announced a partnership with Adidas.

Adidas

Just last year, Nike released a striking series of black-and-white ads as part of its push into social justice. Images of former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick—who'd been exiled by the NFL because of his criticisms against the ongoing wave of police brutality in black communities—courted the most controversy. But it was a savvy, if noble, move on Nike's end. Kaepernick represents an evolution in the business of sports; his advocacy presents a chance to shift the discourse for Fortune 500 companies who hope to align with socially-minded celebrities. Through him, Nike is able to create and sustain real impact, nationally and globally.

With the addition of Beyoncé and Donald Glover into its fold, Adidas is gunning for a similar impact: one that is multilevel, innovative, and authentic (both artists have the ability to tap into vast and disparate communities of people worldwide). It already seems to be working, too. The company saw substantial sales growth in North America last year thanks, in part, to its creative partnerships. But impact is about more than financial gain. Today, social ports like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter are a shrewd barometer of cool. Brands crave relevance via social impact, which is measured in likes, retweets, post count, and meme proliferation. All of it furnishes continuous chatter, be it for a pair of new Yeezys or the latest Ivy Park drop. It's a business-defining play for Adidas. One thing Beyoncé has never lacked for is the attention of the crowd.

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