February 21, 2024

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Puma is out to prove it’s a force in fashion just like Nike and Adidas — in the real world and the digital one.
The German activewear brand is using its Sept. 13 show at New York Fashion Week to unveil two unconventional new sneakers: the Nitro NFRNO and Nitro Fastroid, available exclusively via redeemable NFTs. Unlike its usual footwear, they were conceived as purely digital designs before Puma figured out how to turn them into physical products. Synchronized with the show, which is set to feature collaborators from Dapper Dan to football club AC Milan, Puma will also stage an online experience taking place on Black Station, a new 3D space launching today where the brand plans to showcase new digital products and ideas.
The last time Puma took part in NYFW was to show its Fenty collaboration with Rihanna in 2017. The return is a sign that Puma aims to reassert its position in fashion and continue building its cultural clout after its successful effort to reinvigorate its brand by focusing on its connection to sports such as basketball and F1 racing. It has also worked to rebuild its pop-cultural cachet through partnerships with stars like Jay-Z and Dua Lipa.
“We were grounding ourselves in sports as our core. Over the last few years, we haven’t made those same kind of commitments to the world of fashion,” said Adam Petrick, Puma’s chief brand officer. “We’re reintroducing people to what Puma’s take on fashion is, in light of the fact that we’re a 75-year-old sports brand with an eye on the future.”
Puma is arguably in a strong position to branch out. The sport-centric strategy has worked and the brand has been growing faster than Nike and Adidas. In July, it raised its outlook for the year, with sales in the first half of 2022 jumping nearly 25 percent over last year. That’s compared to 5 percent growth for Adidas and roughly 2 percent for Nike, which suffered from supply-chain issues and Covid lockdowns in China, where Puma is less exposed.
Puma, of course, is starting from a smaller base, making it easier to outpace its larger competitors. Its total sales last year reached €6.8 billion ($7.7 billion), far behind Adidas’ €21.2 billion and Nike’s $46.7 billion in its recent fiscal year, ended in May.
But the brand’s wholesale business is thriving, said Adam Cochrane, analyst at Deutsche Bank Research, and it has successfully leveraged its celebrity and sports partnerships to find white spaces in a market dominated by its bigger competitors. In a research note last week, HSBC analysts led by Anne-Laure Bismuth also highlighted Puma as being better-positioned than peers to deal with challenges ahead like sluggish consumer spending due to high inflation. They noted Puma’s “compelling product propositions, with a constant flow of product innovations” and lower price point.
The brand has lately been building out a presence in online games and web3 in a move to make a mark in digital culture as well. Earlier this year, it launched an experience on gaming platform Roblox that allowed players to buy head-to-toe Puma looks. More recently, it announced a project with the narrative NFT project 10KTF and released 4,000 Nitropass NFTs, which will give owners the ability to get the NFTs granting access to the sneakers it’s revealing at NYFW. It started its own Discord channel as well.
Black Station goes another step. Designed like a futuristic lobby that visitors can wander through, the permanent 3D online space will get occasional refreshes and serve as Puma’s platform to highlight new virtual products and experiences.
A peak at one of Puma’s new sneakers on Black Station. (Puma)
The company is playing catch up to a degree. Nike and Adidas both took big steps into these spaces ahead of Puma, Nike acquiring virtual fashion company RTFKT and Adidas launching its “Into the Metaverse” NFT collection last year. They’ve also been more aggressively building out their online businesses.
“Puma has been behind the curve with regards to investment in digital and e-commerce compared to Adidas and Nike with its app only recently being launched,” Deutsche Bank’s Cochrane wrote in an email. Web3, he noted, offers Puma a way to increase visibility among young consumers and potentially build stronger ties to its best customers through NFTs. “In the short term we do not see it changing the game but brands will want the option to participate quickly as it evolves,” he added.
The web3 play comes at a challenging moment for the crypto market. The bubble of 2021, which saw buyers piling in with hopes of flipping anything they could at a massive profit, has now burst, sending NFT prices and trading volumes off a cliff.
Petrick isn’t fazed.
“I see a long-term future for Puma’s business in digital products,” he said, referring to virtual versions of items already core to Puma’s business like sneakers and running gear. “We also need to make sure that our brand is present in immersive experiences, like games.”
Puma’s shoes, for example, have appeared in the game NBA2K for years, and Petrick said what most interests him about NFTs is how they can allow for verified ownership of virtual goods. He sees Puma’s current NFT holders as the start of a community and expects the brand’s strategy and products to evolve with the rapidly changing digital landscape.
The digital world is even influencing the design of Puma’s physical products.
The brief that Heiko Desens, global creative director at Puma, gave the design team when they started on the NFRNO and Fastroid was to take any beautiful or visually interesting elements they wanted and apply them to a digital design — without considering the usual constraints of footwear, like how it would be manufactured or how it would work on foot.
“It is very different because you basically create a piece of art and then you see whether you can walk in it,” Desens said.
When they began testing physical samples of the new sneakers, they did make changes but were sure not to compromise the integrity of the design. The resulting shoes, while still recognisably sneakers, make use of some unusual shapes and proportions, making them better suited to fashion than performance.
Producing shoes this way wasn’t easy. Desens said the NFRNO involved more individual moulds than they had ever used for a shoe, making it like a puzzle to assemble.
But the shoes are a creative statement. They won’t be available in stores and can only be obtained with the NFTs Puma will release along with its show at NYFW.
Still, Desens said they’ve gotten positive feedback from Puma’s commercial teams as well as the retail partners they loop in on what the brand has in its pipeline. The digital-first approach is now providing a blueprint for future sneakers from Puma.
In his view, the digital space allows for more exciting visuals and is already exerting its influence on the physical world.
“All this information and these visuals people are exposed to, it’s another, let’s say, generator for trend or demand,” he said.
Puma aims to be one of the forces shaping those trends, online and off.
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