On December 23, 2013, Mario Balotelli announced a new endorsement deal with Puma, ending a three-way bidding war also believed to feature the likes of Nike and Adidas. In what follows we will take a deeper look at some of the marketing opportunities, branding strategies, and endorsement possibilities, while drawing inspiration from and comparisons to the rebounding, enigmatic, ‘90s legend.
During November and December of last year, for club and country, the man they call Super Mario sported a pair of blacked-out, logo-hiding versions of the Nike CTR360s, foreshadowing a potential severance of ties with the American sporting goods giant. The saga climaxed in AC Milan’s Serie A clash with Roma on December 16, which ended in a 2-2 draw at the San Siro, during which Mario donned a pair of unknown boots covered in newspaper headlines he inspired throughout his career.
The boots themselves were among the evening’s biggest headlines. The Italian star’s transition marks the end of a relationship with Nike that left much to be desired, as well as advancement for Puma that might push the brand deeper into the mix in the soccer world. It also presents the somewhat rare situation in professional sports where a premier, controversial, but generally well-liked individual, naturally grabs the spotlight just by showing up. For inspiration on how Puma should handle its newly signed star, we will take a look at Charles Barkley, a polarizing, international superstar athlete that Nike managed to convert into a marketing success.
To succeed with Balotelli, Puma should take a page from Nike’s book, albeit from a different time, sport, and target market. Barkley signed with Nike coming out of Auburn University in 1984. In 1993, coming off of an MVP season and amidst a Michael Jordan retirement from the NBA, Nike released the “I Am Not a Role Model” commercial, complemented by the Nike Air Force Max CBs. It was the first of a series of more than five Barkley signature shoes. We are not privy to any Nike sales data for the shoe, but considering the several editions of Barkleys, as well as re-releases Nike continues to roll-out to this day, conventional wisdom suggests the shoe, and the campaign as a whole, succeeded.
With Nike, Balotelli was underused; he made a few minor appearances in a commercial or two, but the opportunity to generate revenue through some sort of subtly personalized cleat or apparel was for the most part passed-up by the American sportswear giants–a baffling mystery from a business perspective, given the stuff of legend that has made Balotelli a cult hero. Nike instead pushed the safer bets on the better with the well-received talents of Ronaldo and Neymar. If you had to choose two, it would be the better business decision, but that does not mean profits in a market for Balotelli cannot be tapped. Based on his popularity (notoriety), Balotelli could have target markets in mainly England, Italy, and the United States, all countries with average household incomes on which a sports manufacturer can afford to take a calculated gamble. To see Balotelli leave a company with the placement, resources, possibilities, and brilliance such as Nike, is a bit disappointing
The following demonstrates a few interesting parallels between Sir Charles and Super Mario, which strengthens the case as to why Puma should use Balotelli à la Nike’s Barkley move in ’93, and why a similar strategy might succeed today. Keep in mind that we are looking at an extreme case of apples to oranges here; we will call out a few items, and get into some additional detail, after the table:
As noted above, this is about as apples to oranges as it gets, but at the same time, the parallels are interesting. Of all the similarities, perhaps the most curious of all is the Disciplinary Actions per Game average. The number is a simple average, considering the sum of disciplinary actions taken against the player, per appearance, including both starts and substitutions. More specifically, disciplinary action was limited to cards received by Balotelli, while Barkley’s totals were influenced by the sum of disqualifications, technicals, ejections, and flagrant fouls. We excluded fouls committed and personal fouls (soccer and basketball, respectively) mainly because the action of committing a foul was viewed more as a natural part of the free-flowing game, as opposed to a disciplinary action. Additionally, the accumulation of fouls would flush through other disciplinary categories (i.e., red cards, ejections, and disqualifications). Furthermore, the volume of fouls per game tipped the scales of the data, masking the actual effect of disciplinary actions. It is far from perfect, but use your imagination: we are talking about two completely different sports.
The correlation is impressive. It is clear that the two are similar based on their antics and overall demeanor, but to have a connection founded in their style of play, one which separates them from their competitors, is intriguing at the very least. It is far from perfect, but the statistics highlight the troublemaking persona that differentiates the two from their peers. Sure, they can score with the best of them, but they can also hack it up and do something reckless, a key factor into what makes them so interesting. You want to watch because you never know what you might miss. Both men are more than players. Their athleticism and talent transcend the pitch (or court). For every nonsensical prank or action associated with Barkley, Balotelli has a story that either matches or trumps the big man (i.e., the Mafioso friends, the iPad vs. Faroe Islands, take your pick). Or perhaps consider Balotelli’s antics accompanied by brilliance, where he scored two goals versus crosstown rivals Manchester United, hours after nearly lighting his house on fire. Also of note are Balotelli’s latest press feats, which have thrown him on the cover of Time, Vanity Fair (International Editions), and Sports Illustrated. Charles and Mario aren’t Jordan and Ronaldo, but they always keep it interesting, and are of tremendous value to any sporting goods company from a marketing perspective, and therefore a revenue generating perspective.
It is for that exact reason that Puma should embrace Balotelli for everything he is and everything he can be. So far, the company has done a good job promoting him with the mystery cleats, originally unleashed without a clear trace of Puma’s influence, and for which 250 pairs were made available at a cool US $350. To date, the company has highlighted Balotelli in a few social media promos, one featuring Balotelli walking down a stadium pitch tunnel holding a sparkler, counting down the start of the New Year (perhaps a sly nod to Super Mario’s love affair and history with fireworks), as well as the latest evoPOWER commercial.
When the world looks towards Brazil this summer, Puma perhaps could throw a commercial on pregame and halftime breaks touting Balotelli for his unique brilliance, his bad-boy attitude, his millionaire problems, and society’s perpetual misunderstanding with him. Following Nike’s example, it should drum up its own version of the Barkley ‘93 “I Am Not a Role Model” campaign, something that plays off of Balotelli’s ongoing battle with traditional ways and common sense, something it is working with in the “Why Always Puma?/Why Always Me?” slogan it slapped across the headline boots, sort of. On January 3, Puma announced the new evoPOWER 1 Camos, a clear nod to Super Mario and his Bentley Coupe (which, by the way, he gifted to his Milan teammate Urby Emanuelson).They might even do well to explore a brand collaboration, a strategy through which the company has seen success in the past with the likes of BMW, Ducatti, and Ferrari; for Balotelli, they could work with Nintendo to acquire image rights for Super Mario, which could be featured on apparel and footwear. The possibilities are endless.
Make no mistake about it, if Puma plays its cards right, Balotelli will be the centerpiece. And with that, the company will see the biggest return on investment by keeping it more about Mario’s branding and less about the latest Puma evoPowers. The rebel, lost soul that Balotelli personifies is a modern-day James Dean in Rebel without a Cause – it is something that everyone can identify with, admire, aspire to, or sympathize with.
Puma needs to harness that and take it to the bank. Through and with Balotelli, Puma perhaps should integrate the Puma-wearing Azzurri (coincidence?), as well as the company’s wealth of quality, but not so marketable, stars, who have a chance to light up the scene in Brazil this summer (see Aguero, Fabregas). Adidas has Messi, Nike has Ronaldo. Puma’s not going to beat them on much unless it’s outside-of-the-box, unconventional, and maybe a little bit controversial. Luckily, they have the right man for the job.
As always, keep an eye out for Mario. Puma is hoping you will.
What do you think Puma should do and can do with their latest addition to the ‘roster’? Let us know in the comments section below or via Facebook or Twitter.