Puma Decoded: Why it keeps a safe distance from mass media

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Marketing
Last updated : December 21, 2010
German sports and lifestyle brand, Puma was one of the first international players to foray into the Indian market. afaqs! explores the brand's communication style, which is quite unlike the advertising techniques used by other brands in its category.

Incorporated in 2005, Puma India has steered clear of mainstream media platforms to advertise its products. Nonetheless, this swift feline mountain lion has consistently been raking in loyal consumers across the country, and has more than managed to convey its brand message to the target audience -- 16-25-year-olds belonging to SEC A, A- and B+.

The only time the brand is seen going traditional and mass with its communication is during end of season sales -- that's when it leans on billboards, newspapers and magazines.

As the 1990s came to a close, the brand's deliberate move to reposition itself as both, a niche label as well as one that has carries with it a strong element of fashion was evident. Notably, this was despite the brand's deep-rooted link with football, sports technology and track events dating back to the late 1940s. This probably has a lot to do with both clutter and competition. Around a decade to 15 years back, with a growing number of sports brands such as Nike and Reebok successfully linking themselves with sports and related technology, Puma rose to the threat and revamped itself. Instead of waging a lost war against strong opponents, Puma smartly changed its weaponry. It successfully occupied the overlapping space between sports and style. Its recent association with the PPR Group makes it possible to name Puma and fashion brands such as Gucci in the same breath as both are subsidiaries of this multinational. It could be said that Puma's positioning is akin to that of computer giant Apple; it's got great technology, yes, but owning one sets you apart from the masses instantly and speaks heaps about the way you live your life.

In the Indian market, Jack in the Box customises the creative content generated by Puma's marketing head office in Boston. OMD handles the brand's media duties.

In India, the brand indulges in a subtle and niche communication strategy, such as on-ground, digital, in-store/retail level branding or just word of mouth. However, mass brand awareness is deliberately shunned. Full-fledged TV ads are considered over the top and static billboards are deemed unemotional. However, recall that in 2008, the brand combined the two and created an outdoor TVC of sorts.

When the brand thinks of going mass, the most important tool in hand is apparently Puma's standalone retail stores, which become its mass marketing vehicles, especially to communicate with its consumers in tier II and III towns. This is why the brand invests in maintaining retail-level consistency across stores.

The inside view

Rajiv Mehta, managing director, Puma India speaks to afaqs!, explaining how Puma's unique communication style is a deliberate marketing strategy that works for the brand.

"We don't believe in the in-your-face approach as seen in India, across all mediums of communication. The consumer is evolved and recognises when a brand is trying too hard; hence, we remain understated. If a Bollywood actor happens to wear a Puma cap in a movie without any mention of the brand along the way, then it is received a lot better than having the brand deliberately placing the product in a scene, when it really does not fit in."

Granted, but isn't Puma missing out on the extensive reach that TV can offer? Mehta has a different viewpoint on this. "There is always a macro view to a brand's growth trajectory within a country. When you want to reach numbers as a mass footwear brand, then talking just to the top tier of the pyramid will not suffice. At this stage, Puma's objective is to be desirable. And one cannot be desirable if one starts to talk to the whole country."

He goes on to explain that early adopters will discard the brand, once they realise that everyone knows, owns and talks about it. Hence, the idea to remain niche works for the brand.

Mehta, however, doesn't deny the flipside to Puma's choice of communication. "That's a question the brand will ask itself in around a year's time. As soon as we feel the pressure rising to grow further and modify our marketing plans, we will review the same," he asserts.

Prashanth Challapalli, business head, Jack in the Box Worldwide, contributes, "Puma is not a mass media brand; it relies more on interactivity than 'one way shouting' at the TG. TV cuts through all age groups and Puma has a specific (read younger) TG. These consumers are more present on the digital space."

The outside view

Brand and marketing consultants help gain perspective on the issue. Sharda Agarwal, director, MarketGate Consulting offers, "Puma is not a true blue sportswear brand; it is a cusp between fashion and sports. Technology-driven sports brands, like Nike and Reebok, operate in a space where they're forced to do what the competition does, say, advertise on TV. Since design-led Puma operates in a different space, it can afford to set its own rules."

Agarwal justifies Puma's heavy digital presence, saying that the brand's appeal is narrow -- that is, for younger, fashion-conscious individuals, than for the masses. "Also, word of mouth communication works for high involvement categories (as against impulse categories), where peer approval is important. Puma's strong fashion element makes this possible," she adds.

Anand Varadarajan, CEO, Added Value (a brand development and marketing insight consultancy) explains how Puma's communication works at the neurological level to create brand differentiation. "Right-brain advertising uses visual imagery, colour and symbols; whereas left-brain communication is driven by conveying the hardcore concept of a brand at a conscious level. Puma's word of mouth advertising is left-brained, as it is opinion-related, conclusive and analytical."

It thus follows that Nike, with its overt tick-mark logo, relies on a right-brained communication strategy, quite unlike Puma.

Some are of the opinion that brands just need relatable touch points, which needn't be driven by mainstream advertising; they could be events, sponsorship deals and the like. Ideation consultant, Vinay Kanchan, for instance, says that word of mouth communication works wonders, if a brand rides on a strong "myth".

He cites the example of brand Adidas, which is said to have gained immense mass popularity during the 1950s owing to a myth. Rumour has it that during a football match in the 1950s, the founder of the brand (Adolph Dassler) turned the match around for the losing team by stitching shoes for the players on the field.

"As a brand, you need to fuel word of mouth communication with a strong story. Nowadays, people talk passionately, not about products, but about the context they're found in," Kanchan says, adding, "There's nothing wrong in going niche, but Puma will do even better if it pinpoints what its mythology is."

He continues, "It is crucial for a brand to give the consumers a story. It is a revered brand owing to its legacy and history; it needs a nudge of relevance today." The content of this story, he says, can then be delivered to the TG via BTL and digital media.

Kanchan tangentially points out an associational irony in Puma's niche positioning, namely, its association with cricket -- a sport with mass appeal. "Associating with corporate sports would help rid this inconsistency," he suggests.

Independent brand consultant, Cajetan Vaz feels that though Puma is loud on the advertising front at the global level; in India, it is not as active, because its aim is to engage consumers at a direct one-to-one level, rather than with one-to-many mass communication.

"They seem keen on measurable communication;" he thinks aloud, "Puma seems to be quantifying its communication and the response to it. Online, it is possible to ascertain, say, the number of people who have viewed a particular viral or taken part in a contest. Traditional TVCs offer no such path for feedback."

Vaz gives the instance of Citibank, which used to be very active with print and TV 15 years back; but now invests in measurable communication, where consumer responses can be monitored.

"The same pattern is seen with Puma. These things work well for brands that have a lot of brand stature already, and it works in mature markets too. In India, I don't know how well this will work; Puma might have to put in more on the brand communication front," he opines.

International instances of Puma's events that lend themselves to measurable feedback include its Play for Life tie-up (partnership with the United Nations Environmental Program); One Day One Goal campaign (measurable and highly successful activation which has generated incredible word of mouth) and Clever Little Bag (Puma's eco-friendly shoe box innovation).

"Puma's strategy best displays that one size does not fit all. It entails made-to-order brand communication at its best," Vaz concludes.

Global approach

Globally, the brand is endorsed by athlete Usain Bolt, is associated with the Volvo Ocean Race and has tie-ups with several African football teams. At home, in the sports arena, Puma is associated with IPL teams, Rajasthan Royals and Deccan Chargers, and has been the players' official kitting supplier since the first season of the tournament.

That was when the brand's campaign, 'It grows on you' created a buzz with artefacts such as stick-on moustaches and wearable horns. Two TVCs were also aired at the time, albeit very briefly. In September 2010, Puma created a viral film during the Commonwealth Games. And in the upcoming season of the IPL, the brand will go in for ticker-like TV innovations.

On the experiential front, Puma relies heavily on product co-creation; two recent BTL activities, Pimp Your Sole and Creative Factory stand testament to this. The former was a 15-day event, where youngsters were encouraged to design their own soles. Winning designs would become part of the Puma 2011 Spring Summer Flip-Flop collection.

Similarly, Creative Factory facilitated product co-creation with the help of an iPad application designed by Puma, which helped people create their own pair of kicks. Both events were seeded online and consequently created a viral wave. In turn, a ripple effect was set into motion, as participants spread the word to their peers, both in person as well as online.

Clearly, Puma also relies a lot on the travelling word of early adopters and opinion leaders, and thus, generates content via earned -- not paid - media.

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First Published : December 21, 2010


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