How do you promote an über-cool brand for the fickle sports lifestyle consumer? Antonio Bertone, former record shop owner and club promoter, and now Puma’s global Chief Marketing Officer, offers a candid insight into his creative side.
“The bottom line is that the product has got to be good because consumers are way too smart nowadays; just because so-and-so is wearing it doesn't mean its not shit”
“We always look at it like a relationship between two people that you’ve got to work at because if you get lazy then they’re going to dump you,” Antonio Bertone reveals when discussing the glue that bonds Puma and its customers. “You’ve got to flirt, come up with new things, try new things and fail at things. You’ve got to be willing to put yourself under the microscope and say, ‘Is this cool or is this shit? Would anybody want this’?”
It’s a refreshing and self-effacing viewpoint from a C-Level exec, but Puma is canny enough to know it can’t just follow the herd; this ‘sportilifestyle’ manufacturer and its distinctive cat logo are always looking to pounce on greater market share in an industry fusing sports, fashion and lifestyle. Bertone is putting the bounce in this cat’s step because, for him, Puma’s mission statement is pretty clear cut. “It’s about being the most desirable sport lifestyle and sustainable brand in the world.” He emphasises the importance of the key word: desirable. “We never go out there saying we want to be the biggest, the baddest or the greatest – it's just to be the most desirable. If you just stay focused on remaining desirable to your consumers you can be an eternal brand and relevant for the long term rather than just hot for the moment.”
You can’t afford to rest on your laurels either, he asserts. “The art is to never be too comfortable with what you have accomplished but always look at what’s next. People are way too smart today, they're also not sitting around waiting for you to be amazing.” And strong competition breeds hunger to succeed, he explains. “Today, you compete against everything and not just those in your industry because people have discretionary money, especially as they don’t have a mortgage. Every season you have to earn your place.”
Based in Herzogenaurach, Germany, Puma, which should be pronounced ‘Pooma’, distributes its products in more than 120 countries and employs 9000 staff. The company notched up €2.46 billion in consolidated sales last year – the toughest retail environment for decades. Puma, owned by French retailer PPR, is the world’s third largest sports goods maker. In terms of sports apparel, this is a huge year for the company with the football World Cup finals in South Africa just days away from kick off. Puma produces the strips for the world champions Italy and a string of strong African teams – all of which will be seen by millions of fans around the world during the month-long tournament. They have also produced a universal third strip for African teams in 2010 in partnership with the United Nations. “This World Cup couldn't be located in a better place for us,” the CMO divulges. “It’s a big deal for us, because we’ve been a huge supporter of African football for almost 20 years now. Football is a key part of our identity because we’re a sport lifestyle brand and we have to stay deeply rooted in the sport.” Obviously two sides sporting Puma kits would be a dream final for the board but Bertone has less lofty ambitions. “Would I love to have an African team make it to the final? Absolutely. That would be amazing; mind-boggling.”
Footballers like Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba and Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o ply their trade in Europe’s top leagues but are idolised in their home countries. The right superstars donning your sportswear can send sales in stores and online through the roof. Indeed, having the fastest man on earth – Olympic gold medallist and world recorder holder Usain Bolt – decked out in Puma attire, including the running spikes, is almost priceless for Puma.
Bertone believes sports star sponsorship is important to the “overall mix” but it’s equally important not to get carried away because consumers don’t just make purchasing decisions based solely on who is seen wearing certain clothing. “In some parts of the globe maybe people are still heavily influenced by who is associated with some sports but in general it’s nice to see people competing in your products and representing your brand as an ambassador or stewardship.” But it comes back to quality of product, he argues. “The bottom line is that the product has got to be good because consumers are way too smart nowadays; just because so-and-so is wearing it doesn’t mean it’s not shit.” The company is diversifying its sponsorship portfolio by breaking into new sports like Formula 1 and, surprisingly, sailing (Puma has entered the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012 from Alicante, Spain, to Galway, Ireland). Cobra Golf was recently snapped up to strengthen Puma’s golfing brand.
Although there is fierce competition in the field of sports sponsorship and endorsements, this CMO says Puma doesn’t take sideways glances at what its competitors are up to because much of the products and ideas are conceptualised more than two years in advance of a launch. Puma does its own thing, often with less resources at its disposal. “Our whole life we have had to punch above our weight because our closest competitors are sometimes seven to eight times bigger than us. So we do well with less and I know that sounds weird but we’re more creative when we have no money,” he reveals in a nonchalant tone.
When Bertone talks about funds he is referring to back in the early 1990s when Puma was financially crippled and its brand in freefall. It had also lost a heap of ground to the likes of Nike, Reebok and fierce German rivals Adidas. In stepped 30-year-old Jochen Zeitz who conducted a root-and-branch overhaul of the business, re-established the brand and put Puma on the road to financial recovery. He still remains Chairman and CEO and the driving force behind the business today. “We’ve been able to evolve the company into one we feel is consumer-centric,” states Bertone. “Our job was also to make this beautiful 60-year-old brand relevant.”
Bertone himself joined the company not long behind Zeitz after having been a consultant for street clothing company Converse as well as a club promoter. He even owned and sold a record shop dedicated to underground music. “Back then it was a kind of post punk rock music that we focused on as well as grindcore and death metal,” he explains. “We sold stuff and music paraphernalia you couldn’t find at other record stores because there was a subculture of music that was bubbling up at the time, similar to sneakers. It’s all about getting people into your stuff or your wares.” He says this desire to spread the word is a trait of his. “Whether I’m persuading my friend’s to go to punk rock shows or selling them shoes, I have always been consumer-centric in a strange manner.”
Bertone, the son of Italian immigrants living in Boston, rocked up at Puma’s US door as a fresh-faced 22-year-old with a skateboard tucked under his arm. Having not been to university or completed an MBA, Bertone knew more about 360 kickflips and 50-50 grinds than he did about marketing metrics. But what he lacked in qualifications he made up for with a finger on the pulse of what kids found fashionable and wanted to wear. He was also instrumental in Puma’s push from sports apparel into lifestyle clothing and skateboarding footwear. “I had a very big mouth and I had no professional training,” he reveals bluntly. “When I came in I think there was a lot of wonderment from my perspective because I was like, ‘Wow, I get to make sneakers’.”
He had no grand visions of becoming the global marketing chief and a member of the board though. “I wouldn’t have even known what a CMO was back then; I was just happy to be employed,” he laughs. “I didn’t go to university and it’s a daunting task when you’re a kid and you have to pay for food and stuff.” Puma employed him as a trainee marketing consultant and within three years he was elevated to global marketing director. Not bad for 25.
Bertone, who has been CMO since 2007, insists inspiration for Puma’s marketing and brand strategy comes from people around him, the media and even the weather. “I’m generally better when the weather is nice.” Bertone’s efforts have a direct impact on Puma’s balance sheet so he admits getting a real buzz from seeing what’s proving popular in the stores. “I’m a little old-fashioned in that I still get excited about what sells at the register, so I love to go into the stores and see what selling; and I love it when it’s not the thing that you thought it was going to be – that’s kind of fresh.”
However, it’s not hit after hit for Puma; some products or ideas will crash and burn despite all the market research. His assessment of the thin line between success and failure is somewhat enigmatic but it still conveys his point. “Certain product launches sometimes make a nice big bowl of lemonade or a really shit omelette.” It comes back to the basic questions that need to be answered before any rollout. “You need to ask yourself who is going to wear this, who is going to pay for this and is it too much money? If you stick to those simple questions whenever you approach a new product launch you will have much more success, but sometimes people just try to make it like curing cancer and that just makes it too frickin’ complicated.”
Failure is all part of the learning curve for marketing execs and brand champions. It makes you stronger, Bertone asserts. “It makes you humble, especially if you put hype behind something and then you fall on your face – it stings for a little bit.” He adds: “Failures also make you smart, because you can’t have a crystal ball and anybody who pretends they do is full of shit. You’ve got to be human at the end of this; it’s not like I’ve got some super computer spitting out these ideas – it’s a human being and already that is faulty.”
And with consumer opinions and purchasing choices constantly evolving, your marketing strategy needs to be fresh and relevant. Coming up with hit advertising campaign or groundbreaking online video that goes viral is one of the biggest challenges. “I always used to have this theory that marketing is like bug spray,” a cryptic Bertone explains. “You kind of come up with one bug spray and then the bugs get used to that spray and they don’t die anymore, so you have to come up with something stronger to kill the bugs, and marketing is the same way.”
When it comes to his best “bug sprays” or successes to date, he is suddenly reticent to blow his own trumpet. “I don’t know, I get freaked out by those kinds of questions,” he responds, slightly vexed by the question. He reluctantly lets his guard down though. “I love the fact that we updated the overall delivery, design and look and feel to contemporise Puma. I’m also proud of working on the first-ever Puma store in Santa Monica, which eventually led to our rollout of retail with over 500 stores worldwide. Other than that, I find it freaky thinking about this stuff.”
So is Bertone as enthusiastic about working for Puma as he was when he arrived in his youth? “It’s been 16 years but I’m still really motivated. I still see a lot of areas where we can do better but I think Puma is a great company to work for – it really entrusts its people more so than processes and I never feel like I’m a cog in the machine.” It’s not all plain sailing though. “I actually get to earn my pay check here; I don’t want to get comfortable.”
Box clever: unique eco-bag launched.
Puma has unveiled its so-called Clever Little Bag – a revolutionary new way of packaging shoes, which the company says will save 8500 tonnes of paper a year. The new packaging houses shoes in frame made from a single sheet of cardboard and wrapped in reusable shoe bags. Puma, who have ambitious targets to become carbon neutral in 2010, say the eco-friendly bag uses 65 percent less paper than a traditional shoebox.
It will also reduce water, energy and diesel consumption in the manufacturing process by more than 60 percent per year. Indeed, Puma are predicting a reduction of 20 million megajoules of electricity and carbon dioxide dropping by 10,000 tonnes. And due to the replacement of traditional shopping bags with the lighter built-in bag the difference in weight can save up to 275 tonnes of plastic. Clever Little Bag has been two years in the making and is the brainchild of renowned industry designer Yves Béhar who came up with 40 packaging prototypes before the Clever Little Bag. “Ideally, I would like that to be the new benchmark for our industry and how people create hoe packaging going forward,” says a buoyant Bertone “I think it's pretty frickin’ awesome.”
Clever Little Bag will be fully rolled out in the second half of 2010.
Puma’s vital stats
Distribution: 120 countries
Rank in sportswear industry: 3
Main shareholder: PPR Group 69.36%
2009 net earnings: €128.2 million
Teams Puma equips at World Cup: 7