Puma’s comeback started with company culture, and giving the brand keys to Rihanna

After years of also-ran status in the ultra-competitive sneaker and sports wear category, Puma has been on a bit of a winning streak the past few years, getting back into the basketball game and enjoying strong revenue growth.

The roots of today’s successes go back to 2013 and 2014. And while in many ways it’s a marketing story about revitalizing the brand, it began with changing the company, said Adam Petrick, global director of brand and marketing for Puma. He was speaking at the Collision conference Tuesday afternoon, in a session inspired by Peter Drucker’s famous quote “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Petrick and Co: Collective co-CEO Rosemarie Ryan, who worked with Puma on the brand reinvention, explained how the athletic wear company wanted to re-establish itself as a brand connected to pop culture, but needed to change the culture of the company itself in order to achieve its goal. “You can copy product, you can copy strategy, but you cant actually copy culture,” said Ryan.

“When you are in the position where you have nothing to lose you have to strip everything back and say ‘What are we going to be,” said Petrick. The answer to that question was a new brand positioning, “Forever faster.” “It became the mantra internally and it really helped us to make faster decisions, to be faster to solve problems for our partners, to be faster to get on trend. That culture became an incredibly strong piece of what we were doing and then that radiated outward.”

The senior team also agreed that to change the culture of the company, they needed deeper and better understanding of their customer. “It is not going to be advertising [or] a big media buy that is going to help us win,” said Petrick. “It was going to be about listening and really paying attention to our consumers in a way that is better and more meaningful than our competition. That is the only edge we have.”

Part of that listening meant different kinds of relationships with brand ambassadors who really understood the target audience in meaningful and authentic ways, people who could help Puma not only say the right things for the audience but to behave the right way, said Ryan.

“We talk about story-doing: What is your story and what are you doing to build it into everything you do for your audiences,” she said.

For Puma that has meant working with the likes of Rihanna, Selena Gomez and Jay-Z. Puma wanted Rihanna because they believed she was perfect for the brand. “She said yes and then it was about okay here are the keys, you tell us what makes sense…. That’s when things really started to happen with the brand,” said Petrick.

Asked what happens when the brand makes a misstep, he said that being open and transparent is key. “You have to own it,” he said. “We have to really clear about the fact that we are not the best, we are not perfect. But we are trying to be the best we can to push culture forward, to push sports forward. To push technology forward and make great products for athletes.”

David Brown