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BRANDING

World Cup 2014: How a Small Brand Gets a Piece of the Action

Startup brands can learn a lesson or three from how Puma competes with heavyweights Nike and Adidas for World Cup attention.
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The World Cup: On the one hand, you have 3.2 billion worldwide viewers over a four-week span. Many of them are ostensibly avid customers for sports gear. On the other hand, you need to think hard about whether World Cup advertising--the most exclusive event sponsorships cost $75 million--provides the best value for your marketing dollar. 

Adidas is an official World Cup sponsor. And both Adidas and Nike have produced World Cup-specific commercials. But what do you do if you're a smaller brand? How do you establish yourself on a global stage, when you know you can't compete with Nike and Adidas for marketing might?

Puma, whose revenues are a fraction of Adidas's and Nike's, is making up for it with stealth moves, reports Kyle Stock in BloombergBusinessweek. For one thing, the company is waiting until after the tournament to launch an ad campaign. For another, Puma is taking advantage of a loophole allowing players to wear whatever brand of cleats they want (as opposed to the brand that is officially sponsoring the rest of the team's uniform).

What can underdog entrepreneurs learn from these tricks of the trade? A lot. For, as it turns out, Puma's methods are part of a classic playbook, deployed effectively by (formerly) underdog brands like Under Armour, Brooks, Columbia Sportswear, and Patagonia. Here's a quick list of three underdog strategies that these brands--and Puma--have used. 

1. Your brand can't be all things to all people. Think about what you're not, in addition to what you are. Puma's new CEO, Bjoern Gulden, used to play soccer for the German national team. Puma is also the brand of cleats famously worn by soccer legend Pelé. Taken together, these two facts make it easy to see why the brand would sharpen its focus on soccer gear.

In many ways, what Puma is doing is analagous to what the Brooks brand did, in its attempt to become a leader in the running sneaker industry. As my colleague Abigail Tracy has reported, Brooks' path to becoming a powerhouse brand for runners began when the company became less of a sneaker generalist and more of a running specialist. "We stopped making shoes under $80 and shifted all to run," said CEO Jim Weber. "The product got better and better and better."

Likewise, when Gert Boyle took over a troubled Columbia Sportswear, she quickly realized that the company had to narrow its focus. "Beginning in the mid-1970s, we reinvented ourselves and said, this is what we are, and we do this well, and we don't do this well," she told Inc in 2006. "You can't be all things to all people. We stopped private labeling, focused on typical outdoor clothing, and started to go to larger suppliers." 

2. You don't need the spotlight of TV commercials or megabrand tie-ins. In bypassing World Cup commercials, Puma is borrowing from the playbook used both by Brooks and, to a lesser extent, by Under Armour. When Weber was rehabilitating Brooks' brand, he bypassed the spotlight of TV ads, preferring to let the product's performance do the talking. "The product experience is where you build a performance brand. You can't get there with advertising," he said. "Advertising is a turbocharger, but the product is where you really create authenticity and credibility."

While Under Armour has certainly relied on commercials, in its earlier years it was crafty about sidestepping pricey official affiliations with the National Football League (even though many NFL pros were devoted to Under Armour products).

Specifically, founder Kevin Plank was able to link his product to pro football players by marketing it through an ESPN series called "Playmakers." Plank told Inc: "We're getting a lot of exposure with 'Playmakers.' They were looking to authenticate the series as true football without having use of NFL marks. Using our product does that. The perception is that Under Armour is where the pros are."

3. A differentiated image can help you. Puma's latest cleats are visibly different from Nike's and Adidas's. "While Nike and Adidas focused on fins, ultra-light synthetic materials, and intricate knitting that fused the boot with the sock, Puma kept its strategy simple: really bright shoes in different colors," writes Stock. You read that right: Each shoe is a different color. The right boot is pink. The left boot is blue.

Patagonia, historically, has also focused on honing the right image for its products. In a classic Inc company profile, Ed Welles noted that image was a "key cog in the company's strategy." At one point, in fact, founder Yvon Chouinard "brought in top designers and set them up in separate--and competing--product lines."

As for Puma, its pink-and-blue shoes are an illustrative reminder of how image can become a significant point of differention for an underdog brand. Perhaps most importantly, the differentiated look allows Puma's endorsers to cast themselves as difference-makers, too. For example, Mario Balotelli, a standout player on Italy's team, said: "In the end, it is exactly the reason why I chose to be with Puma. They dare to be different, and everyone knows that I do as well."

Now that sounds like one powerful pair of cleats. It's one more reason to tune into the World Cup over the next four weeks. Especially when Italy is playing. The game moves fast, but Balotelli's feet should be easy to find. 




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