Exclusive: Selena Gomez on Empowering Women and Shutting Down the Haters

Selena Gomez is no stranger to seeing her name everywhere. But the first time the pop star saw it on the Puma shoes she designed — with FN there to take in the moment — the entertainer was stunned and giddy at the brand’s Germany headquarters in April.

“That’s so weird,” Gomez told the Puma team as she inspected the updated SG branding on her signature shoes. “It’s not obnoxious. They are so cool. I love them.”

Selena Gomez takes a look at Puma styles.
CREDIT: Dirk Bruniecki

Gomez made a pilgrimage to Puma’s HQ in Herzogenaurach, where she held court in front of nearly 1,000 employees from around the world for its annual conference showcasing new products and direction.

Shortly after the presentation in Germany, FN caught up with her over the phone, where she waxed poetic on how she’s leading Puma in a new direction while catapulting the brand’s awareness in the United States.

As an influential personality on social media, an in-demand entertainer and a fashion tastemaker, Gomez is, in effect, the voice of the American female millennial consumer.

Now, as Puma celebrates its 70th anniversary, the “Revival” singer is giving the lifestyle brand a revival of its own from the ranks of the smartphone generation.

But what’s different with Gomez is that the brand is not building a narrative focused on the allure of the 26-year-old’s celebrity or her trendsetting savvy. Rather, it’s the message of self-empowerment that’s fostering a community of “strong girls.”

Selena Gomez
CREDIT: Dirk Bruniecki

“I feel like there could be endless opportunities for that,” Gomez said of the SG branding that appears on her debut collection dropping in December. Though the letters share her initials, the interpretation has greater depth. “The whole point is to take the focus away from me; it’s about what I believe in and what I choose to do with the platform I’m given. It’s much bigger than me and it’s much bigger than Puma — it’s about how you feel.”

To much fanfare, Puma tapped the singer-actress as an ambassador in September. The company’s strategy for Gomez comes on the heels of successful partnerships with Rihanna and The Weeknd. The label’s robust roster of young talent also includes Big Sean and Cara Delevingne.

“I like to think there’s room at the table for everybody. I think what’s most important is the relationship that Puma creates,” Gomez explained, adding that Puma crafts unique stories that build upon each ambassador’s individuality. “Everything I’ve done comes from a place of how I would do something, so how I would take athleticwear and how it would feel. I know some girls are very specific about wearing certain things.”

Gomez said her inspiration comes from a “giant Pinterest board” in her head under the guidance of Puma’s design team.

Selena Gomez with CEO Björn Gulden at Puma’s headquarters in Germany.
CREDIT: Dirk Bruniecki

Ultimately, she relies on instinct for her creative process.

“I take cues from music that inspires me, movies that inspire me, artists that inspire me,” Gomez said. “I love learning from all kinds of people. So for me, it comes from the mood or moment I’m in.”

That kind of creative thinking resonates well with the new female consumer, according to Loretta Brady, the author of “Bad Ass & Bold” and a professor of psychology who studies organizational culture and media engagement.

“In the current climate, women are being seen and presented as active, balanced, engaged and encouraging of each other. Puma is emphasizing the reality and the ideal that [resonates with] today’s women. Being active is just part of keeping oneself ready to lead or serve,” Brady explained. “This empowering message is attractive to women, and perhaps especially so in the context of a cultural and political climate that is at times pretty disempowering, particularly for young women.”

Following Gomez’s first shoe with Puma, an elevated touch on its Phenom Lux silhouette that dropped April 6, the brand is set to release the Defy x SG (which drops Sept. 18), followed by the Defy Mid x SG and SG Runner in December. Expect more luxe, feminine touches, such as rose gold hardware on a silhouette that’s built for day-to-night athleisure lifestyles.

Selena Gomez
CREDIT: Dirk Bruniecki

“I’m building what I already created and I’m making it better — more sophisticated,” she added. “It’s strong — I never forgot to say the word ‘strong.’ The whole point of my line is for any woman who dresses up in athleticwear to feel strong and beautiful.”

Who better than Gomez to deliver the message of acceptance and overcoming adversity? She has spoken openly about battling depression, anxiety and lupus, an autoimmune disease she was diagnosed with in 2015.

Admittedly, the world of fashion and the outside criticisms that come with being showcased prominently, is intimidating — and can certainly diminish body confidence. Gomez is acutely aware that many of her supporters feel the same way.

“I feel like I’m one of those people. I actually am one of those people. I understand and I get what they’re feeling and what they are afraid of,” she said. “It’s all about how you feel at the end of the day. That’s my approach to myself — seeing it’s not okay that I’m not accepted, that I’m different from anybody else.”

Of course, living in the spotlight compounds these issues. In June, Dolce & Gabbana creative director Stefano Gabbana ridiculed her looks after commenting on Catwalk Italia’s Instagram account. Under a series of composite photos showing Gomez on the red carpet, Gabbana responded, “è proprio brutta,” which roughly translates from Italian to: “She’s so ugly.”

When haters go low, Gomez stays strong. She urges her fans to do the same. “It’s OK that I’m not accepted this way. It’s OK that I’m nice and not intense. I don’t really care,” Gomez said of her attitude toward entertaining her detractors. “I have to express my message to myself more than my fans. I would say that ‘I get it, I’m like you.’”

And it’s this ethos that Puma taps when using her as the face of new campaigns. Just look to the Defy silhouette — the name is an apt one that speaks to her truth. “I remind myself daily about the importance of defying the outside noise,” she said of the shoes when she launched them in May. “To defy is to be brave.”

The relationship between the brand and the ambassador has been “based on a strong set of shared values,” said Adam Petrick, global director of brand and marketing. “She’s brave and confident in the choices she has made in her career, and she’s caring, thoughtful, and respectful to her hundreds of millions of fans.”

When Gomez takes her messages to social media, they resonate among her record nearly 140 million Instagram followers — the most anyone has on the platform. Puma, with 8.2 million followers, has leveraged this social media clout to its advantage with greater impact than it could ever wield on its own.

Compared to Puma, Gomez’s Instagram posts have three times more engagement, according to Launchmetrics, a software and data insights company with a focus in fashion, cosmetics and luxury. “In dollars, that means some of Selena’s posts equated to nearly $3.5 million in Media Impact Value per post, whereas Puma’s best-performing one only reached $195K,” explained Alison Bringé, the company’s chief marketing officer.

Media Impact Value is Launchmetrics’ algorithm that measures the impact of relevant media placements across all channels (online, social, print), inclusive of paid, owned and earned media.

Puma’s highest-performing Instagram post of Gomez announced that she “joined the family” last year on Sept. 18. It received 398,365 likes, a far cry from Gomez’s best-performing promotion for the brand on July 12 — an image of her striking a pose in the Defy Mid silhouette, which garnered more than 7 million likes.

In May, Puma and Gomez took over Paramount Studios in Los Angeles with a Defy City activation that demonstrated how immersed and authentic the ambassador is with her campaigns. There, guests had the opportunity to purchase customized socks that benefited the Alliance for Lupus Research, an organization dedicated to medical research on the autoimmune disease that afflicts Gomez and that has inspired her to become a community advocate. Last year, Gomez’s best friend, actress Francia Raisa, donated a kidney to her when she was in need of one.

“I believe everything I touch can have a charitable component,” Gomez explained. “When I met with [Puma], they saw who I was as a person and knew what they wanted to highlight. I wouldn’t work with someone who wouldn’t work with my charity of choice and that was meaningful. I’m passionate about finding a cure or working with people who don’t have the resources to find out what kind of lupus they have — it can be scary if you don’t know.”

Puma applauds Gomez’s ability to focus on business and do it with heart. “She’s also a strong young woman who stands up for what she believes in and works to find better solutions when she sees that things are not right in our culture, and in the world,” said Petrick. “In many ways we feel that we have learned a lot from her in the course of our time working together.”

Portions of proceeds from Gomez’s Phenom Lux shoe raised $100,000 for the organization.

The Alliance for Lupus Research named Puma its Corporate Visionary Partner in May at its 9th annual Lupus Handbag Luncheon & Silent Auction. The honor recognized the company’s “innovative collaboration with lupus champion Selena Gomez that brings much-needed resources to accelerate the drive for new treatments and a cure,” said President and CEO Kenneth Farber.

Gomez’s signature collection in December should yield more resources for the fight against lupus, a cause that is near and dear to her heart.

“I’m not really worried about what’s going to happen in the future,” said Gomez. “But I’m making use of my time now to make the future more meaningful, more purposeful.”

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