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11th November 2022 - By: Carolin Heel

Putting the Adi back in adidas

adidas Superstar shoe splashing in water

In most companies, announcing a new CEO isn’t very controversial. However, things get a bit more interesting when said new CEO joins from a rival company, as is the case with adidas appointing ex-Puma CEO Bjørn Gulden at their helm.

Now, by rivals we aren’t talking about mere competitors. Puma vs. adidas is a feud that divided a family and the town they lived in. Initially working together, the Dassler brothers Adolf “Adi” and Rudolf “Rudi” started the Gebrüder Dassler (Brothers Dassler) shoe factory, Geda for short. Adi was the visionary behind the shoes while Rudi took on the commercial aspects. They worked together for over 20 years but in 1948 parted ways for good. Rudi went on to set up Puma and Adi founded adidas. To this day, it is unclear what was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Being the biggest employers in town, the feud split the entire town into two factions. For decades, people frequented separate local businesses, bars, even bakeries and butchers, based on the company they were loyal to. Over time, this rift closed and today it is more of a friendly rivalry. But for adidas to name Puma’s CEO as their new head is still quite a big deal.

My adidas

To share a bit of insight, I interned for adidas in early 2013, just before Bjørn Gulden joined Puma in August of the same year. At the time, I felt like Puma was more of a little brother to adidas that wasn’t being taken very seriously (Puma founder Rudi was actually the older of the two brothers). Adidas had just released their Energy Boost running shoes, a revolutionary technology at the time and still one of the best materials used in performance shoe cushioning. Adidas was flying high, and I was part of this, even if I was nothing but a little intern.

With this came a certain sense of entitlement. You wouldn’t be seen dead wearing Puma branded anything. Rumour has it, that’s a fireable offense. But why chance termination, when you get a juicy discount on adidas products and access to sample sales?

Now, I am still very much loyal to adidas, but I’ve changed my tune when it comes to Puma. Working in marketing, I can appreciate their work from a creative standpoint. I’d even go so far as to say that in the years following 2013 adidas seemed to be resting on its laurels, while Puma was smashing it.

Puma reinvents sports fashion for women

In 2014, Puma appointed Rihanna as creative director of their women’s category – a bold move that ultimately paid off for the company. Now adidas has had plenty of collaborations with famous faces, but to put a celeb in charge of creative direction was unprecedented.

At the time, Adam Petrick, Global Brand & Marketing Director for Puma said, “Puma admires [Rihanna] for never waiting for the next big thing, but more so for driving what happens next – in fashion, style, music and soon to be – sports. We can’t wait to empower women worldwide with Rihanna – she demonstrates a body confidence and determination that is the exact representation of the Puma Woman.” A sentiment that Bjørn Gulden shared and highlighted himself by stating that “our future is female”.

The move demonstrated Puma’s commitment to their women’s segment, and it showed in their bottom line. Following the release of the Creeper sneaker line in September 2015, the company saw sales grow across the board. Most notably, their US women’s shoes sales increased by 40% – a remarkable achievement in a market typically dominated by American sportswear behemoth Nike.

In 2016, Rihanna made her Fashion Week debut with the Fenty x Puma collection, cementing a fashion forward stance for herself and the brand. She continued to produce wildly immersive runway shows with Puma, culminating in the Spring 2018 Fenty x Puma show where she took to the stage on a motocross bike surrounded by pink sand dunes.

To be fair, adidas also collaborated with famous faces in the last 10 years. Most notably this includes Beyoncé’s Sainsbury’s uniforms Ivy Park collection and “ye who shall not be named”. Neither of them was very daring. The latter turned out to be a big fat racist blemish on adidas’ brand reputation.

Channelling Adi Dassler’s visionary spirit

Realising that they have been stagnating and losing business to the competition, the Three Stripes replaced their CEO of 15 years, Herbert Hainer, with ex-Henckel CEO Kasper Rørsted in 2016. While Rørsted did push the company towards digitalisation, his approach wasn’t exactly fashion-forward and seemed to be focused on rationalising processes.

Being born and raised in Germany, I can appreciate a certain efficiency in this leadership style. But ‘efficient’ is not what I want to see from a sportswear and fashion brand. I want daring, dynamic and fashion-forward. I want movement, energy and innovation.

Adidas and its reputation were built on Adi Dassler’s innovative spirit.

At the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, Adi dared offer his running shoes to Black athlete Jesse Owens. The same Jesse Owens who then went on to win Gold in said shoes.

Adi and his wife Käthe were also known for their hospitality. Hosting many a legendary sports figure at their home led adidas to win sponsorships and loyal brand ambassadors. Today we would call this influencer marketing.

My personal favourite is the 1954 World Cup final. Adi was in charge of the West German team’s kit and changed the screw-in cleats during half time. This move gave the underdog team the edge on the muddy pitch and lead them to victory against the heavily favoured Hungarians in what is referred to as “the miracle of Bern”.

I could go on, but you catch my drift; I want this daring leitmotif back at adidas HQ where it belongs. That’s why I applaud the appointment of Bjørn Gulden as the new CEO of adidas. Choosing your arch-rival’s CEO to lead your brand is definitely not a conventional move. Looking at what Gulden has achieved for Puma, I’ve got high hopes for the future of the Three Stripes.

So here’s to bold moves.

To pushing the boundaries of sportswear and fashion.

To bringing back the visionary spirit of Adi Dassler.