How exclusivity is key to sneaker brand Athletikan's success

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Limited edition drops have proved a winning strategy for Athletikan founders Robbie Ball and Joe 'Tambo' Tamburrino

When Robbie Ball and Joe Tamburrino started Athletikan, they knew they were stepping into a crowded field. With thousands of sneaker companies worldwide in an industry dominated by billion-dollar brands like Nike and Adidas, the two Melbourne marketing graduates knew they needed a strategy that would enable them to carve out their own unique niche. 


That strategy was creating a sense of exclusivity to drive demand.


“Our core strategy is to release limited editions, sometimes just 200 or 250 units, to generate desirability and demand,” says Tamburrino. “And from the start it worked – our first drop of 500 shoes sold out in a few hours.”

When you’re a small player coming up against big brands, you’ve got the flexibility to push the boundaries a bit

- Robbie Ball

“We were really one of the first Australian sneaker brands,” adds Ball. “So that was pretty cool. And when you’re a small player coming up against big brands, you’ve got the flexibility to push the boundaries a bit.”


Four years since launching, Athletikan has sold 25,000 pairs of sneakers – 10,000 during the pandemic period alone – and has amassed a database of 50,000 sneakerheads, along with almost 75,000 followers on Instagram. Their distinctive kicks, in eye-popping colours, are worn by high-profile influencers and athletes like Rose Namajunas and Michelle Waterson.


The founders admit that the brightly coloured shoes on their website today are a far cry from the “moderate” and “humble” designs they launched with. But that’s not the only lesson they’ve learnt since they first discussed the idea for Athletikan over a late-night coffee five years ago.

Have a clear USP


Ball’s initial vision was of a sneaker that would be the perfect hybrid of sport and fashion. 


“I thought of Joe immediately,” he remembers. “We’d met doing an internship at a sportswear company – nothing to do with shoes – and I just knew he would be down with it. We both had marketing backgrounds and an all-in attitude. I was confident we had the capabilities to create an alternative to the mainstream brands.”


It took six months to get the brand to market, with Tamburrino and Ball designing the first shoe silhouette themselves. “But we quickly realised that to get the brand to the next level we needed to get a designer onboard to get there, which we did.”


Right from the beginning, Athletikan has worked with carefully selected influencers to generate demand.


“Our initial launch strategy was to get the product in front of social media influencers,” says Tamburrino. “We had around 60 influencers including athletes, reality TV stars and celebrities. And the buy-in we got from them and from the press was amazing.”


The pair put this down to Athletikan being the first Australian brand dedicated to producing exclusively sneakers. 


Releasing ‘drops’


When that first sneaker design finally dropped online in 2017, it sold out within hours and generated a waiting list of 5,000. 


“It was like an explosion,” says Tamburrino. “It was the kick-starter we needed to drive the strategy moving forward.”


Since then, the pair has developed a kind of “release formula” where they first identify customers who may be interested in a new release based on their previous interactions with the brand, then invite them to sign up for the waiting list and finally provide extra value through VIP incentives.

The communications aren’t isolated to a single platform, rather we aim to reach our customers wherever they are.

- Joe Tamburrino

“The communications aren’t isolated to a single platform, rather we aim to reach our customers wherever they are. That could be social media, email, SMS or some other micro-platform we engage on.”


Collaborations are key


Collaborations were another key step for Athletikan, with Tambo and Ball creating limited edition sneakers with celebrities and athletes. 


The first was with DJ Will Sparks. “The night he posted an image of the sneaker on his socials, we had 2.5k people sign up for the waiting list,” remembers Ball. “Will is Melbourne-based, fitness-focused, with a global reach – it was an amazing match. When the shoe dropped, 400 pairs sold out in 15 minutes. That was a pretty cool chapter.”


The hype had already spread to Europe and when MMA (mixed martial arts) stars Francis Ngannou and TJ Dillashaw endorsed Athletikan sneakers on their socials, a cult US following bloomed. “Someone like Ngannou gets millions of eyeballs on the brand and from Dillashaw’s fight week post we got 10k click-throughs to the website,” says Ball. “It’s all about aligning with the right person for the brand.” 


Working with influencers 


Influencers have been an important part of the marketing mix for Athletikan, with Ball explaining that the brand has evolved from gifting products in return for posts to building long-term partnerships with a select group of ambassadors. 


“The days of sending out a lot of product to many and expecting big results are over,” he says. “My recommendation right now would be to find a small group of micro-ambassadors that you can build your brand around – give them product, collect feedback, look at cross-content collaborations like photoshoots and create bigger partnerships.”


The brand has no plans to open a bricks and mortar store or sell to wholesalers. “We made a very conscious strategic decision to sell exclusively online through our own store to maintain the value of the product,” explains Tamburrino. “We’ve seen other brands kind of fizzle out when they move into stores – it can take away from the brand. So, for now, we are happy being an ecommerce business. And it fits our skill set.”


Get legal advice


Logistics have presented some of the biggest challenges for Athletikan. “Logistics is a really underappreciated skill set. We didn’t have any experience and spent a lot of late nights unloading shipments, squeezing boxes into small spaces and packing, labelling and sending orders ourselves,” says Ball. 


“It wasn’t until we partnered with a third-party logistics service [in the past year] that we were freed up from that pressure and could focus more on what we were good at.”


But with endorsements from Rose Namajunas, Michelle Waterson, Paige VanZant and many other celebrities and sports stars and a 400x increase in revenue since they started in 2017, the Athletikan future looks as bright as one of their neon pink sneakers. Take your marks…


Tamburrino and Ball’s 3 top tips to small business owners starting their own brands:

  1. Don’t leave anything on the table.
    There’s no point trying something half-heartedly. Go all in to create the momentum you need to be successful. 
  2. Build a community around what you’re doing – even pre-launch.
    Remember, you can’t launch to crickets! And create a Facebook group of VIP customers whom you can get feedback from. Get feedback from people who care about your product and work with that to build your brand and marketing platform.
  3. Budget for good legal advice to protect your brand and plan for challenges around logistics. Use the experts! 

Tess Durack is a freelance writer and copywriter 

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