Jhis intention was to prevent. “The shoe will pinch,” was how Abhishek Ganguly’s colleagues and friends reacted when they learned that the regional manager was leaving Reebok. After a three-year stint, Ganguly was due to join rival Puma as sales and marketing director in November 2005. The concern was well founded. Puma, which was the last among the world’s major sportswear manufacturers to enter India in 2005, ended the first year with a meager turnover of Rs 22 crore. Compare that with the big boys: Nike posted FY06 sales of Rs 99 crore; Adidas was sitting well with Rs 186 crore; and Reebok was on top of the heap with a staggering Rs 354 crore.
“Who knows Puma” was how the bosses of Ganguly mocked and piqued the enthusiasm of their soldier who was about to break the buckles and put on new walking shoes. The arrogance of the biggest brand has become impregnated with the behavior of the big bosses. “There were a lot of doubts, which could have led to self-doubt,” recalls Ganguly. The questions posed, however, had serious merit. Was there room for another sports brand in India? Did Puma really have a chance in its fight against the big boys? After all, Puma’s underdog status in India was a grim reality.
Ganguly’s intention was to stand firm. The new recruit had lived an underdog life, and a series of deja vu moments only made him more dogmatic.
Five years ago in 2000, when Ganguly visited IIM-Lucknow, the Mathematics graduate from Bhagalpur University in Bihar encountered such a “who are you” moment. “What is TNB University,” some of his batch mates poked around, alluding to the institution Ganguly graduated from. Later, when he embarked on the professional world, he realized that he did not have the ABCs of management on his CV. IIM-Lucknow was perceived as fourth in the pecking order of IIMs – Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Calcutta were the top three.
At the beginning of 2019, Puma overtook Adidas. It recorded revenue of Rs 1,157 crore in 2018 – Adidas’ corresponding figure for FY 2018 was Rs 1,132 crore – and became the biggest in India. The performance has still not convinced the detractors. “Looks like a point bump” and “the gap isn’t big” were some of the backhanded compliments. Ganguly remained a mother. He continued to run.
Fast forward to March 2022. Puma achieved revenue of Rs 2,044 crore in FY21 compared to Rs 1,215 crore in FY20, making it the top brand sportswear and fashion multinational to enter the Rs 2,000 crore club in India (see box). What, however, is most interesting is the big leap forward compared to its rivals. Puma is now bigger than Adidas, Reebok and Nike combined. The underdog is now the best dog.
Ganguly feels the underdog label fueled the fire in his stomach. It made him perpetually hungry and relentless. “It really worked in my life,” he says. “I knew others had more resources, but I had to maximize what I had,” he adds.
Meanwhile, in March 2020, Puma found itself in a strange situation. January was the best month the company has seen in India. Two months later, the country experienced the first episode of confinement. The challenge was daunting. With a negative and uncertain business environment, a gloomy outlook on the employment front and hyper-subdued consumer sentiment, companies and brands have entered their shells. Everyone started cutting costs, stopping spending and suspending operations. “For the first time in our history in India, sales have dropped,” says Ganguly. The company closed 2020 at Rs 1,215 crore, compared to revenue of Rs 1,413 crore it recorded in 2019. Human instinct would have meant being more cautious, Puma resorted to the animal instinct.
It’s time for the kill. Puma sniffed out an opportunity as work-from-home and online classes created massive demand for sportswear. While in 2018 apparel accounted for just 32% of Puma’s sales, it reached nearly 40% in 2021. What also helped was the brand’s lead on the digital curve. While in 2018 most fashion and sportswear brands struggled to pull themselves together online and continued to largely remain offline, Puma had already made dizzying gains as 19% came from online sales. In two years, the figures have almost doubled to 36% and have reached 43% in 2021.
Interestingly, Puma’s aggressive offline play has boosted online sales. The German brand continued to expand its offline footprint in the country. From 360 stores in 2020, the number rose to 411 in 2021. As stores took orders on WhatsApp and delivered to consumers, Puma rolled out experiential retail outlets with F1 simulator, customization counter – get the name , number and design embroidered or printed in 30 minutes and launched limited edition products.
There was also something – an experience – that kept Puma from being defensive in their approach. The brand launched “Puma on the Move,” a consumer outreach program in which it set up pop-up stores in residential companies across the country. “It changed the trajectory of our offline retail business,” says Ganguly. “It told us that we should be more ambitious in our business,” he adds.
What also helped Puma’s sprint was its decision to keep the marketing and advertising tap going strong. He doubled his collaboration with Virat Kohli for his One8 brand, which he launched in 2018, decided to sponsor football by taking sponsorship of the Mumbai City Football Club team at ISL in 2020, and sewed another athleisure collaboration with cricketer KL Rahul and deployed 1DER. Another bold move was to partner with Royal Challengers Bangalore last year, which made MNC its first sportswear brand to join the IPL movement after five years.
Ganguly explains the mindset and aggressive play. When the ball swings and the conditions are cloudy, you have to adapt and always try to score. “Covid was more than a swinging ball. It was a curve ball,” he said, adding that the brand still had to score. “Those who play for the draw don’t win,” he said.
Puma’s big wins in India, according to retail experts, can be explained by a bunch of factors. The first is the outsider label. “There was nothing to be afraid of in India when it started,” says Ankur Bisen, senior vice president (retail and consumer products division) at consulting firm Technopak. The bitter global sibling rivalry – Puma vs. Adidas – was not taking place in India. Second, a growing Indian market, growing consumer aspiration and rising incomes meant that the demand for global brands was not going to die. Puma took advantage of this. Third, he learned from the blunders of Adidas and Nike. While the former grappled with the Reebok fiasco, the latter struggled with its franchise partners. “Puma watched, focused online and played a smart offline retail game,” he says. Fourth, the brand partnership he has forged with top cricketers has paid off. While One8 made Rs 175 crore last year, 1DER made Rs 40 crore.
What also helped, brand gurus point out, was a relentlessly aggressive approach. Harish Bijoor, who runs an eponymous brand consultancy, explains. There are brands that have an image, and then there are those that have an image in addition to turnover. “On the first account, Nike did extremely well,” he says. Puma, however, falls into the second bucket. “It lived up to its name and billing,” he adds. While the last-mover advantage helped, staying digital native was a big blessing.
To some extent, the weakness of rivals also came in handy. As India increasingly became a blind spot for other global sportswear manufacturers, Puma found the ground wide open. “For all foreign players, India has never had a problem on the demand front,” Bisen says. If other brands failed or struggled, it was largely due to a disconnect from global and Indian strategies and leadership mistakes. One of the biggest brands has constantly flirted between a strong global executive and little-known Indian management. And those who did the right thing made the best of the situation. Look at Skechers, which is now the third largest sportswear brand in India (see box). “Puma ticked all the boxes,” he says.
But can the disturber be disturbed? Can Skechers represent a challenge for Puma? Bisen reckons the fight could come from two sets of contenders. First, a new group of local D2C brands, and the second is from Skechers.
Ganguly, for his part, is aware of the threat. “We are not complacent,” he says. If Puma can dethrone the incumbents, they could also face a tough fight. However, what he is banking on to overcome potential challenges is an unsaturated Indian market and animal instincts. “Rs 2,000 crore means nothing if we don’t stay nimble, nimble and aggressive,” he says. The Big Cat is always hungry and on the move.
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