Adidas and Puma get into bed with esports organizations


Cloud9 collection by Puma

Twitch streams and Twitter followers are great. When it comes to cashing in big-time for any sporting organization, though, it’s all about the merch.

And when it comes to merchandising, power brands make great, mutually beneficial bedfellows, resulting in a win-win situation.

Think about Tiger Woods. The golfer was inextricably linked with Nike all through the ’90s. The ball cap with the famous swoosh was as much a part of his persona as his thousand-watt smile.

And about how, after years of being associated first and foremost with soccer, Adidas suddenly invited hockey fans to the party in 2015. That year, it landed a long-term deal with the NHL. Reebok—which actually operates under the Adidas umbrella—had been paying the NHL US$35 million for the right to partner with it. Adidas, though, stepped up with an offer double that, beating out established hockey heavyweights like Bauer.The reason? At the time, the corporate talking heads at Adidas said they were on a mission to make the brand “cool” again. In other words, they wanted to return things to the mid-20th-century glory years.

And that goal remains today, with Adidas and its long-time bitter rival Puma travelling down a similar road.

The pull of esports

What does the under-20 market consider cool in 2020? Sorry, it’s not NHL hockey, Premier League soccer, or Major League Baseball. None of those traditional leagues hold a flaming roman candle to esports. If you or someone you know has a kid under 16 in the house, you know full well that all time not spent updating Instagram and posting TiKTok videos is devoted to gaming. Whether it’s watching YouTube, streaming on Twitch, or playing with a gaggle of trash-talking enthusiasts online, it’s all about the pull of esports. Think the instant gratification of a great kill in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, or the adrenalin rush of doing battle with friends in the Overwatch League.

This often offends older generations of sports fans, however. They don’t understand why anyone would sit in front of a computer playing Rocket League when they could be watching the Stanley Cup playoffs. In August.

Deal with it. And remember there was a time when, thanks to James Dean, Grace Kelly, and four out of five doctors, your grandparents hoovered cigarettes. They were the height of sophisticated cool. Times change.

Esports have become insanely big business for those who have never known a world where the Internet wasn’t omnipresent and all-consuming. And by big, we mean an ever-expanding audience of over 450 million consumers just waiting to be monetized. Which brings us back to high-wattage legacy brands looking to crash a whole new frontier.

The back story

Let’s focus on Adidas and Puma here, because the back story is fascinating. In the 1920s, a young entrepreneur named Adolf Dassler became obsessed with building a better sporting shoe in his hometown of Herzogenaurach, Germany. With the help of his older brother Rudolf, Dassler convinced U.S. sprinter Jesse Owens to wear a pair of their shoes—featuring handmade spikes—at the 1936 Summer Olympics.

Then, just as the Dassler sporting business was achieving liftoff, a war broke out in Europe. When the global fighting stopped, the Dassler brothers found themselves at war with each other. Rudolf then formed and manufactured sporting goods under the brand Puma, and Adolf did crazy business under the name Adidas.

The brands went on to become multinational behemoths interwoven with everything from the NBA to FIFA to the NHL to Indian cricket.

Major marketing scores over the years have included Pelé wearing Puma at the 1970 FIFA World Cup, and Lionel Messi taking to the pitch in Adidas at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. And that’s the tip of a Titantic-sized iceberg. Andy Murray, David Beckham, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Lasith Malinga, Kevin Garnett, Thomas Müller, Boris Becker, Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams, Vince Carter, and Marvin Bagley III have all signed deals with the brands.

But that’s history in some ways.

New opportunities

Over the last couple of years, Puma and Adidas have started competing for marketing opportunities in an entirely different arena: esports.

Adidas, however, was arguably first off the line. At the end of 2018, it entered into a partnership with FIFA online team Lyon EDG. It followed that by rolling out a for-purchase, limited-edition sneaker in partnership with France’s Team Vitality in the fall of 2019. By the end of that year, it had climbed into bed with Spanish ESports organization Team Heretics. When Team Heretics unveiled a new jersey to celebrate the deal, it prominently displayed the Adidas logo.

Interviewed last year for the Puma employee magazine CATch Up, Matt Shaw noted there’s been a seismic shift in the consumption habits of sports fans. Shaw, Puma’s senior strategist for esports and marketing innovation, referred specifically to esports. Puma embraced that world fully in 2019 by signing a sponsorship deal with powerhouse esports and lifestyle organization Cloud9. The Puma brand’s appearance on apparel worn by Cloud9’s various teams brought instant exposure to a highly desirable demographic.

A driver of culture

“Obviously, Puma’s heritage is as a sports brand,” Shaw noted. “But it’s patently obvious to us that our consumer makes very little distinction between athletes in stick-and-ball sports and esports athletes.”

Puma was not done there, however. It landed a partnership with Gen.G Esports earlier this year, promising new merchandise as part of the package.

“One of Puma’s objectives as a brand is to be a driver of culture,” Shaw explained. “We came to the realization a long time ago that ‘culture’ isn’t like how people talk about it. There is no music culture without internet culture, and no internet culture without gaming culture, and no gaming culture without sports culture. To be a driver of culture, you have to participate in all of these things, esports is one of them. What Puma gets out of a partnership like this is the ability to be a part of more things that our consumers love, which is how our brand drives culture forward.”

Like sports, branding has come a long way since the Dassler boys partnered with Jesse Owens. With Twitter, Instagram, and Twitch the new sporting arenas, it’s about the merch as much as the stars.

Mike Usinger once took the better part of two years to finish Grand Theft Auto. Over the course of his career he has written about everything from eSports to music to movies to travel.

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