Big Moves From the Big Cat: PUMA on the Prowl for New Stars
Whether it’s bringing in bona fide superstars like Neymar, electrifying up-and-comers like LaMelo Ball, or charismatic champions like Israel Adesanya, PUMA’s prowl for new talent has been exhilarating to watch.
Considering the unpredictable nature of 2020, you could forgive sneaker brands for perhaps taking a conservative approach to business. For PUMA, however, these tumultuous times have been a period of progression.
Since re-entering the performance basketball market back in 2019, the German sportswear giant have proven they’re not afraid to take a risk on the court and off it. The fact that they relaunched their hardwood lineup during a time of decline for the category speaks volumes of the brand’s experimental ethos.
The Big Cat’s big moves to bolster their ever-growing roster of brand ambassadors has been one of 2020’s most intriguing backstories. With an undeniable purpose, they’ve managed to build arguably the most intriguing lineup of talent among all the industry’s top players. And they’re not done yet…
We caught up with PUMA’s Global Director of Brand and Marketing Adam Petrick to discuss the new acquisitions, the philosophy behind them, and what else PUMA has in store.
Adam, it’s obviously been a huge year of PUMA, particularly with so many new and exciting ambassadors. What are some of specifics you’re looking for when signing on new talent to the brand?
The first thing we look for are personalities that are strong and distinctive. We have tried to have a distinctive voice ourselves, doing things in a different way, and it has always seemed to work out well for us when we take on brand ambassadors that take the same road. So, whether someone who is trying to challenge the status quo in their sport, culture or industry – that’s the first thing we look for.
Secondly, we look for ambassadors who are selective and calculated when it comes their approach. Their reasons may vary, whether it’s for artistic expression or challenging themselves in a new environment from a performance standpoint, but we’re looking for people who are really trying to push themselves in a new direction – just like PUMA. It’s a shared value.
For example, going back a couple of years, when we chose to work with Rihanna, it was because she wanted to try something completely new and different. We always knew she was going to go her own way, and that shared value system is something that still holds true with all our athletic and entertainment ambassadors today.
Some other sportspeople out there that come to mind that embody that same ethos are guys like Virat Kohli (cricket) and Bryson DeChambeau (golf)…
For sure. Bryson is a great example, not necessarily because he just wants to ‘be the best’, but because he wants to try new things. He wants to be experimental, he wants push the limits of what is possible in his chosen sport. They’re both great ambassadors for the brand, no doubt.
When it comes to the Asia-Pacific region, the signing of UFC Middleweight Champion Israel Adesanya is obviously a huge deal. Is this perhaps a sign PUMA are looking to tap into more niche sports?
He may be from New Zealand, but Israel definitely has a global impact. There was a lot of interest from the press all over the globe when we announced that signing. We’ve never been in the MMA space before, but I wouldn’t say the signing was an indication we’re looking to take over the sport. Again, there was obviously that shared belief system and values we had with Israel that was the main driving force behind that. While we’re aware his performances in the cage don’t require shoes (laughs), his persona outside of it is just as important to us.
We’ve worked with everybody from ice skaters, to boxers, to tennis players, and it’s always been about looking for athletes with these same values as ours. Even if we weren’t necessarily supplying all the technical gear.
Moving back to a sport you’re well established in now – basketball – the two biggest signings in 2020 have been J. Cole and LaMelo Ball. Obviously, these are two very different acquisitions to the brand. What do each of them bring to PUMA Basketball?
Very different indeed. Since the beginning of what we’ve done with PUMA Basketball we’ve always tried to be ‘culture first’. I personally believe basketball is one of the most culturally-driven sports out there – a unique blend of music, fashion, and obviously the sport itself. When you look at both of these guys, they both bring those dimensions to PUMA.
Cole is an accomplished player, albeit at a more amateur level, but he is such a student of the game. He works hard at his game, and has aspirations to play at a higher level – all this while pursuing his music career. He’s always been about the culture of the game. He’s got close ties to many of the NBA players, and close ties to his home state of North Carolina, which is one of the cradles of basketball here in the United States. There’s a deep connection to the game with Cole, so that’s why working together to make his own shoe – the RS-Dreamer – made sense to us. He wanted to make a performance basketball shoe, not just one ‘inspired’ by basketball, so he could actually wear it while balling.
Melo brings a different dimension. He’s got a unique style of play and impeccable court sense. Aside from what he can do on the court, Melo also has an uncanny connection to the younger generation of players. I’m really looking forward to seeing Melo bring in people to PUMA Basketball that may have not necessarily thought about the brand before. Because we haven’t been present in the sport for very long, a lot of the younger followers may not be aware of our presence. So, being able to introduce these younger followers to PUMA, Melo will be able to help us out with that a lot.
Was recapturing the younger followers always a pillar of what you were trying to do with the re-launch of PUMA Basketball?
I would say it was more about rekindling sport performance credibility in the US market, if I’m going to be perfectly honest. We had a presence in Europe, but with basketball being so popular in the US, there was a huge opportunity there. Now, we have the opportunity to appeal globally with PUMA Basketball.
That’s why it was so important for us to tap into someone like Jay-Z as our creative director. In terms of basketball as a culture, he knows it as well as anyone out there, so there was no one better to help us relaunch the category than him.
In terms of the space itself, we didn’t want to confine ourselves to focussing on performance innovations, and signing the players with the best statistics. It was actually about signing players with the right attitude. These shared values help us craft our storytelling, and that’s what appeals to a lot of the players. They feel proud that they have an opportunity to define our brand.
There’s certainly been a real heritage flair to a lot of PUMA’s new performance basketball offerings. Is this balance between heritage and new-age performance technology at the core of all your designs?
We’ve been fortunate enough to celebrate not only our brand through Clyde, but also our basketball heritage which dates back to 1973. Of course, we’ve been lucky enough to marry that with some of the best performance technology out there, whether that’s the cushioning foam, the super strong upper materials, or the blend of Kevlar and carbon.
We’re doing a lot different things, but not always at the same time. The RS-Dreamer and Clyde Court offer different things in the lineup, where the All-Pro is our pinnacle tech shoe. The fact that our lineup can run the gamut – we’re very proud of that.
On the basketball court, PUMA have a roster full of some of the best up-and-coming talent. However, with the signing of Neymar, an established superstar on the football pitch, the thinking behind that seems a little different. What was the coup behind getting Neymar on board with PUMA?
That’s a great question. First things first, you don’t ‘strategically’ go out and try to sign Neymar. As a sports brand, if you have the opportunity to sign Neymar, you try like hell to sign Neymar (laughs).
It boils down to a question of whether they want to sign with us, and what it is they’re seeing from our brand that they find attractive. In the case of Neymar, he was intrigued by what we were doing with basketball, as well as style and fashion, and our collaborations. He felt PUMA was the kind of place that would embrace him not only as a footballer, but as someone who has a sense of style and wants to show that to people. We certainly see him as an icon in both realms.
Has the buzz around PUMA in recent years surprised you at all?
I’m not surprised, but the pace that we’ve been able to move has been great. It embodies our motto ‘Forever Faster’, in that we’re always trying to get things done as quickly as possible, but there’s also always room for improvement.
We’ve taken a lot of risks, and most of them have paid off, so that’s great. I think we’re a little ahead of where we thought we’d be three years ago. The pandemic hasn’t been easy, we’ve all felt the challenges, and we’ll see how we weather the storm. We’re doing okay. We’ve made some canny moves in terms how we operate the business, and readapting to handle the challenges of the past couple of months.
With that in mind, what’s in the pipeline for PUMA?
We want to keep bringing fresh energy to the world of sports, and keep challenging conventions. You may have seen what we’re doing with our new relationship with Dua Lipa – we’re really trying to make a push in the women’s market. We really have a great opportunity to show what we’re about as a brand, reach new consumers, and bring excitement to sports and sports culture in a way no other brand ever has.
That’s what I hope to keep doing. We’re not gonna let up.