Despite Clutter, Puma Picks Olympics for China Debut

Striking Peking Opera Masks May Help Sportswear Brand Stand Out

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SHANGHAI ( -- After sitting on the sidelines while Nike and Adidas tackled the Chinese sportswear market, Puma picked the month of the Olympics to get into the game. The company has launched a series of limited edition Runway shoes in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong this summer supported by the company's first-ever advertising in the mainland.
Athletes sponsored by Puma pained with opera masks
Athletes sponsored by Puma pained with opera masks

The German sportswear marketer, which sells high-end shoes, apparel and accessories, was founded by Rudolf Dassler in 1948, after a falling out with his brother Adolf "Adi" Dassler, who founded Adidas the same year.

Entering the Chinese market is immensely difficult challenge for any foreign marketer, but Puma faces overwhelming competition. Nike regularly blankets China's largest cities with advertising and lavishes funding on special events featuring western sports stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James as well as champion hurdler Liu Xiang, one of the most successful and beloved athletes in China's history.

Adidas, meanwhile, is the official sponsor of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, which has provided exclusive and valuable access to media in China over the past two years. The sponsorship also paved the way for Adidas to forge alliances with China's national teams, all of which will wear the company's shoes and apparel during Olympic competitions. Reebok, owned by Adidas, is also a small player in China but has a major edge in its relationship with the Chinese basketball star Yao Ming.

China is also home to two prominent local sportswear companies, Li Ning Co. and Anta Group. Both have solid support among consumers in the mainland's lower-tiered cities, where disposable incomes remain low.

Although Puma is entering the Chinese market with a Olympic-themed "See You in Beijing" campaign, created by Can Create, a division of McCann Worldgroup in Shanghai, it opted for a strategy that runs counter to the star-filled campaigns by Nike and Adidas.

Puma is a globally recognized brand but it's new to China, said Canon Wu, chief creative director of Can Create in Shanghai. "There is confusion in China about foreign brands in general, and Puma was late in this market. So the challenge for us was to bring Puma to China as a lifestyle brand, not just a sports brand."

To reinforce Puma's brand positioning as "fun, playful and colorful," said Hong Kong-based Christoph Peter-Isenbuerger, Puma's head of marketing in Asia/Pacific, advertising promotes its sponsorship of three track-and-field athletes. The three athletes -- Jamaica's Usain Bolt, Sweden's Jenny Kallur and Morocco's Mohamed Moustaoui -- are not well-known and have no relevance for Chinese consumers.

Sweden's Jenny Kallur
Sweden's Jenny Kallur
Puma also focused on lifestyle venues, such as karaoke clubs, bars and internet cafes rather than basketball courts and other sports venues, to avoid China's highly cluttered environment during Olympics, said Matt Semple, Hong Kong-based regional development director at ZenithOptimedia, which handled media planning and buying for the campaign. The campaign will run through the end of August.

The Olympics are seen as China's "coming out party," he added. "There is a cause for celebrating our achievement to host the world's biggest event. It is not just a competition for athletes but also a party for everyone to participate and enjoy. Puma's target has a strong sense of individuality and we encourage them to celebrate Olympics in their own way."

The athletes supported by Puma may not register with Chinese consumers but the imagery of the creative certainly will, since it picked one of the country's strongest cultural traditions to close the link between the foreign athletes and Chinese consumers.

In print and outdoor ads, each athlete has been painted with a Peking Opera face mask that incorporates Puma's logo and the flag colors of each athlete's country as part of the mask design.

"We're presenting the Peking opera stage as a metaphor for Olympics taking place in China, putting the country on the world stage, and the idea of a stage performance, not so much driving for gold," said Ms. Wu. The opera mask ads were created specifically for China but may run in other markets around the world at a later date.

Puma created an online tool kit for its Chinese web site,, where consumers can create their own personalized mask that can be printed on a t-shirt at Puma retail stores. The web site is promoted on popular Chinese portals such as and, as well as at events in cities like Shanghai.
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