In mid-August, PUMA made a big splash and added American superstar Christian Pulisic to their roster of athletes and celebrities. The German-based, multinational athletic brand is certainly no stranger to the player, having been the apparel supplier of Pulisic’s former Bundesliga club, Borussia Dortmund.
Why the move? How does PUMA stand to benefit? How can the partnership be brought to life and activated upon over the next few years?
Why did Puma target Pulisic?
Before we dive into what this means for PUMA, let’s talk about the partnership from Pulisic’s perspective. He’s one of, if not the most, well-known American players, globally. At the time of the partnership announcement, Pulisic had won the UEFA Champions League trophy with Chelsea and the Concacaf Nations League trophy with the U.S. Men’s National Team. His brand value is on the rise as we head full steam ahead toward the 2022 FIFA World Cup. As a former Nike athlete, he swapped the American-based endemic brand for PUMA to add to a list of growing partners, including Gatorade, Panini, Hershey’s, and Chipotle.
From PUMA’s perspective, adding Pulisic to your portfolio makes sense, tenfold. He’s an important player on one of the most popular clubs in the Premier League that also happens to be based in London. Although more players are joining the conversation of late, Pulisic is the face of the young, hungry, and boastful youth movement on the U.S. Men’s National Team. The group of players are ready to make an impact on the world’s largest stage and PUMA was smart to attach itself to one of the team’s most-recognizable faces.
BRAND STRATEGY ALIGNMENT
If you think the partnership with Pulisic is out of the norm for PUMA, you’d be surprised to learn that making big splash signings has become their modus operandi in recent years. While their sales figures still trail those of Nike and adidas by some distance, after a 5-year time period in which their footwear sales dipped below $2 billion, PUMA’s footwear sales broke that barrier in 2017 and sales numbers have increased year-over-year ever since, while Nike and adidas’ footwear sales decreased in 2020.
Part of PUMA’s strategy to increase profits and brand strength is to align with big names and big players in various industries. This is evident to the widest audience in their fashion lines thanks to partnerships with Rihanna, Selena Gomez, J. Cole, and Dua Lipa.
This strategy also holds true on the soccer front. In recent years we’ve seen PUMA align with some of the biggest names in the sport, including the likes of Manchester City, AC Milan, Chivas Guadalajara, among others. On the player front, perhaps the biggest move indicating PUMA’s growth strategy came almost exactly a year ago when they added Neymar Jr. as their premier soccer athlete. Now that trend continues with Pulisic, as PUMA looks to strengthen its footing in the U.S. market by adding the country’s most well-known male player.
In previous years we’ve seen the likes of Maurice Edu, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore sporting PUMA. That generation of U.S. player has been cast aside and in their wake lies a new crop of young, exciting players. Villarreal midfielder and U.S. Men’s National Team player, Yunus Musah, is also a PUMA athlete. Could we see the brand make a run at additional U.S. starlets as they continue to rise in popularity ahead of both the 2022 and 2026 FIFA World Cups? It’s certainly a very real possibility with several players already playing at PUMA-sponsored clubs (Zack Steffen – Manchester City, Gio Reyna – Borussia Dortmund, Konrad de la Fuente – Marseille).
For the record, this is speculation based on current club and brand alignments. Don’t fire up the rumor mill!
THE PULISIC BUMP
Moving beyond strategy, let’s look at a tangible sign illustrating the impact of Pulisic’s addition for PUMA. In the below Google Trends chart, we’ve syphoned out sports-related searches for “PUMA” – the Design Company in Google’s category terminology – from September 2020 through August 2021. A few things stand out.
First, the mid-November to mid-December bump can likely be attributed to the Dua Lipa partnership being announced, J. Cole’s basketball shoe announcement, the Super Mario collaboration, and the holiday shopping season. Beyond that bump, one of the next-highest spikes in searches comes in the week of August 8-14, 2021. The Pulisic announcement occurred on August 9th and, for the sake of comparison, Neymar Jr.’s announcement came on September 13th.
While this Google Trends chart isn’t necessarily the best indication of impact, it at least sheds light on the awareness and interest generated around Pulisic’s signing relative to other moments in time.
THE FUTURE OF THE PARTNERSHIP
There are two moments of impact when a partnership is announced. At the onset, brands have the opportunity to create a PR hit marking the zenith of consumer awareness. Then there’s everything that comes afterwards, which is arguably more important for the longevity and success of a partnership.
In this case, several indications as to the future of the Pulisic-PUMA partnership were given at the time of the announcement. Pulisic expressed a desire to help grow the game here in the U.S., using his platform as a way to bring about meaningful change through donations, camps, clinics, field rehabilitations, and more.
While it happened prior to his PUMA move, we’ve seen Pulisic back up this talk by contributing funding to his most prominent youth club, PA Classics, in order to build new small-sided fields and other infrastructure at their facility in Manheim, PA.
The best way for PUMA to allow their newest player partnership to flourish is to allow Pulisic to continue building a lasting legacy that extends beyond what he does on the field. He’s shown an expressed desire to give back and use his platform to inspire future generations of American players and we would love to see PUMA provide him those opportunities, particularly as the 2026 FIFA World Cup on U.S. soil approaches.