Puma’s name has historically been absent in performance running shoe discussions. As of late, Brooks has made the most noise, and relative newcomers Hoka One One and On have quickly made inroads in the ultracompetitive landscape.
But this year, the German athletic giant set out to change that and cement its spot for the long haul.
“A few years back, we decided this is an area we want to be present in as a brand, we want to up our game,” Erin Longin, global director of the Puma running and training business unit, told FN. “We made the decision as a team that we have to get serious about the running space. We’ve always offered running products, but we haven’t really focused on how to win as a brand in performance running.”
Longin noted that the brand focused on two goals at the same time. “One, we started to connect directly with runners and the running to community to understand what people are looking for. And the second thing was the technology approach. We scrapped everything we had. We were like, ‘Let’s assume what we have is not good enough today and let’s start from scratch.'”
Puma’s statement-making reentry into the running market came in February with the reveal of its new Nitro running shoe collection, which debuted a month later and was supported by women’s-led marketing. Although still young, the athletic giant’s efforts have already started to pay off.
According to The NPD Group Inc. retail tracking service, Puma running sales were up 250% for Q1 2021 compared to the same period last year. NPD senior sports industry adviser Matt Powell noted that this growth did not take place across all three months, with sales climbing 625% in March — the month the Nitro shoes launched — compared to 2020.
Puma debuted the fresh five-shoe running shoe range in late February, highlighted by the pinnacle Deviate performance running shoe and the race day-ready Deviate Elite. The lineup also includes the cushioning-focused Velocity, the Liberate for short distance runs and the stability-driven Eternity.
The brand delivered the Nitro running shoes through its e-com platform and its branded stores, and tapped JackRabbit as its launch partner. Brittney Hoss, chief merchandising officer at JackRabbit, said the relationship with Puma has already proven to be beneficial.
“Puma’s entrance into running has had a very positive impact on our footwear business. The initial sell-through rates have been high and have exceeded our expectations,” Hoss told FN. “Brick-and-mortar has been a strong contributor to the sales, over-indexing our typical trend, and we have seen high engagement on Jackrabbit.com with the product.”
Hoss continued, “Ultimately, the technology within the Puma footwear range speaks to the run specialty DNA and what our consumer looks for: lightweight, responsive and plush foam that make for a smooth ride.”
Although the new lineup is performance focused, Powell believes Puma is winning with runners because its shoes are aesthetically pleasing.
“The story is an interesting one in that the product here is really fashion that actually has performance functions. [Aesthetically], it’s dressed much more to a fashion consumer,” Powell said. “This could be one of the brands that leads us into seeing running shoes come back as fashion streetwear.”
For renowned style influencer Mike “Upscale Vandal” Camargo, who has shared looks into the fitness journey he began in January via Instagram, the Puma Deviate is his go-to running shoe. Because sacrificing style is never an option, Camargo said the shoes offer simplicity that looks from other brands don’t.
“Puma didn’t try to over-design these shoes aesthetically for them to hit. That’s where their win was,” said Camargo, who is also a consultant for the brand. “With a lot of performance shoes, designers try to give them too much of a lifestyle element and forget that people are actually using these as tools.”
He continued, “When I get dressed for the gym, I still want to look good. When I put outfits together, I go for one standout color that draws attention that doesn’t necessarily tie into the rest of the outfit. They just sent me this neon volt colorway and the classic orange they use, and when I’m putting on blacks and grays, those shoes add that loudness. They feel so good, they’re sleek and that’s all you need to draw attention down to the feet.”
Aside from aesthetics, Puma also launched its latest push in run with a strong focus on women — something not foreign to its competition.
For starters, much has been made of Brooks’ inroads with female runners, which includes beating out behemoth Nike as the top women’s performance running shoe brand for Q1 2021. Also, New Balance noted much of its success for 2020 came from its women’s business, and that it will continue to focus on women this year with more product specific to her and introducing additions to key franchises through a female lens.
For Puma, its latest push in run includes women’s shoes made on lasts designed for the female foot. Also, the brand added several pro athletes in the run space to its ambassador roster including Molly Seidel, Gesa Krause, Aisha Praught-Leer, Fiona O’Keefe and Taylor Werner.
“We want to be women’s-led. More women are running than ever before and starting to dominate the category,” Longin said. “We will still have men in our marketing, we still want men to buy our product, we will build great running product for men, but the women’s angle is something we have the chance to write. We’re starting from scratch so we can test with women, we can build product with the right last shapes for women. And female athletes have been underrepresented in the category, so we’ll sign both genders, but really focusing on supporting and elevating women athletes.”
Powell said Puma’s women-first strategy, matched with the release of stylish performance product, is smart.
“The women’s portion of the sports footwear market has always been underserved by the industry and it remains our greatest failure and our greatest opportunity. If a brand can capture the women’s imagination, like Lululemon has captured the women’s imagination in activewear, it’s a huge win,” Powell said. “There are more women running than men, and she always wants a little bit of fashion in what she buys. Puma’s shoes address that.”
Longin confirmed that the highest-priced shoe of the Nitro range — the Deviate, which retails for $160 — is the best-selling of the line. (The elevated race day-ready Deviate Elite comes with a $200 price tag.) Puma also delivered tech-loaded shoes at a lesser price point including the Velocity ($120), the Eternity ($120) and the Liberate ($110).
“We have a lot of new runners coming to the space, and those consumers don’t need the $160 running shoe that an elite runner might,” Powell said. “That shoe has to have fashion potential where the consumer can say, ‘I can wear this on the street,’ or it has to be more moderately priced. The fact that they’re also offering a $120 and a $110 shoe, customers can justify their purchase because they’re not paying top dollar but they’re still getting a great Puma shoe.”
Despite Puma’s exceptional growth in the category, there’s still room for improvement. Powell mentioned the brand was positioned at No. 11 in the market for the first four months of the year, trailing market leaders including Nike, Brooks and Asics. Powell also noted that running is the most brand diverse category in the athletic space.
Looking ahead, Puma will expand its running footwear range, which includes new product for winter running and evolutions of current products.
“[This year], we’re going to have more of a max cushioning shoe, we’re going to start looking at trail running with more people getting off-road, especially as a result of COVID,” Longin said. “You’ll see us expand with different models for different types of consumers, but also stay consistent with the models we’ve already introduced. We’re hoping consumers love them and will come back for more, come back for new colors, come back for the next version.”
She continued, “As we get into ’22, there’s a lot of surprising new concepts to come from us that hopefully people will get excited about. We’re looking at new, forward-thinking race day innovations and some groundbreaking, leading solutions for female runners as a way to continue to build product and look at the needs of our female running consumer.”