Recent sexually explicit layouts featuring Puma in a compromising position caught the company with its pants down. But considering Puma’s youthful target market, was the company’s response the best way to manage the brand during a potentially scandalous association? Before rutting the management, some foreplay on the brand’s background.
In its modern form, Puma has been around since 1948. That was the year that Adi and Rudolf Dassler inherited their father’s shoe empire, Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (originally founded in 1924). Dassler shoes were worn by Jesse Owens during his famous 1936 Olympic performance and by countless other Olympians, professionals and weekend warriors.
However, Dassler folded when the brothers fell out of step with each other; Rudolf founded Puma, while Adi went on to create adidas. Both brands do exceedingly well in the world of sport. Pelé and Serena Williams are Puma wearers, and the brand’s athletic wear is high fashion for celebrities; Nuala, Puma’s yoga-inspired brand of lifestyle products, is endorsed by model Christy Turlington. One of Puma’s spiffier ideas is its Thrift concept, where the company reincarnated 600 pounds of used clothing as 510 pairs of shoes.
In 1986, Puma became a limited partnership and is now publicly traded on exchanges in both Germany and the US. In 1999, the company opened its first retail concept store in Santa Monica, California, and this year Puma acquired its Japanese licensee Hagemayer to establish Puma Japan. As of October 2002, Puma employed 2,508, and estimates reported in the Financial Times predict 30 percent growth in pre-tax profits for 2003 (March 29, 2003). Puma’s growth in 2002 outperformed both Nike and adidas.
In the early 90s, Puma’s target moved from children in sensible sneakers to the coveted market of teenagers (and young adults who believe they are still teens). But despite a corporate statement claiming that it aims to “zig where others zag,” Puma’s latest actions make us think it pretty much zags.
Like its competitors, Puma sponsors athletes, claims a “lifestyle” niche and has branched off into extreme sports such as skateboarding, mountain biking and BMX racing. But it is in the nonconformist environment of extreme sports that Puma has more street credibility than many of its competitors. As heavy-hitting brands such as Nike, Reebok and Sketchers hustle to get into the skater market, Puma enjoys a comfortable old-school legitimacy. Notoriously suspicious of corporate greed, skaters trust what they wore during the lean years when skateboarding wasn’t a sport but a nuisance. Within irony-rich, tech-savvy urban hipster circles, Puma is as much a fashion statement as it is an athletic brand, the leaping monotone cat a highly identifiable trademark of, again, old-school seniority.
It is this solid (and lucrative) foundation in the hipster wardrobe that makes Puma’s recent reaction to the fake ads completely mind-boggling. The
two ads in question feature a couple engaged in an act of oral sex while wearing Puma shoes; the logo is pasted in the lower right hand corner. Posted on the Internet, the ads were quickly traded for laughs. Although rumors circulated that the ads were real, this was quickly denied by Puma itself.
End of story? It should have been, but the next step amazed everyone. Puma’s legal department began sending cease and desist letters to sites featuring the ads, reserving the right to sue over non-compliance.
Less than an hour after an email inquiry was sent to Puma's public relations department about their feelings on the ads, the company's brief but strong sentiments were received:
"It has been brought to our attention that several unauthorized, sexually suggestive advertisements portraying the PUMA brand have been released over the Internet. We are appalled that images like these would be created and distributed under the PUMA name. As a brand, we seek to take a unique perspective toward our advertising in an effort to challenge the boundaries of our industry; however we would never consider using these tactics. We are in the process of researching the circumstances and reserve any legal steps available."
Of course, Puma should protect its mark, but its harsh reaction only fanned the flames. It wasn’t long before conspiracy theorists, suspicious of a viral marketing campaign, were pointing to Puma itself as the creator, arguing that the release of the fakes corresponded with AdWeek’s salute of Puma’s new online presence. However, Felix Salmon, an editor for Euromoney Magazine and the operator of a web log that received a C&D letter, suspects Puma’s denial is sincere because, first and foremost, the shoes were older styles. (Salmon’s Puma saga is well documented at FelixSalmon.com). Puma’s website has no mention of the ads.
Viral marketing or just Photoshop fun? The ad and the reaction to the ad certainly garnered online attention for Puma exactly within its target market. Maybe Puma overreacted or maybe Puma engineered the whole thing. Maybe the 1948 feud is not over and the ads were the work of adidas (as some have suggested).
With the hype surrounding the ads dying down, it’s clear that, in terms of brand building, Puma took two steps back and three steps forward. Overreacting to the spoof caused it to look uptight among the very market that it’s hoping to impress. Online bulletin boards worldwide posted thousands of messages mocking and deriding the company for being such a killjoy. On the other hand, each one of these posts mentions the Puma name brand. As the circulation of the ads is impossible to stop, Puma can enjoy the free publicity.
A brand that does “zig” where Puma and others “zag” is Pony. While Puma is busy denying any connection to provocative ads, Pony is exploiting the increasingly accepted province of porn with a new campaign featuring its shoes and Jenna Jameson, one of America’s most popular porn actresses. As it was surely designed to do, the campaign has drawn flack from conservative pundits such as Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly. Fancying itself a maverick in a sea of maverick wannabes, Pony has previously and unapologetically branded itself in connection with convicted gambler and baseball legend Pete Rose, as well as Jack Tatum, a football player best known for paralyzing another player on the field.
Puma doesn't have to embrace attacks on its image. But had it behaved more in line with its cool brand image, the fuss would likely have died down quickly. With its uptight and tight-lipped response to the ads, the brand that prides itself on being hip comes off as rather stiff.