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Nike & Puma, Reframing the Sustainability Message for a Younger Market

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By Izabel Loinaz

2011 has been a big year for the cause of sustainability in sports and athletics.  In March, we saw the launch of the Green Sports Alliance, a nonprofit organization founded by a collection of Pacific Northwest pro-sport teams and facilities in partnership with the NRDC.  Since then, the coalition for furthering sustainable practices throughout the sports industry has grown to nearly 70 members and partners spanning all major North American pro leagues.  We have also seen a race between Nike and Puma for breakaway leadership in sustainability of sports apparel.

In January of this year, Nike launched its cutting-edge website dedicated to its sustainability brand, NikeBetterWorld.com.  Although the sustainable content is noteworthy, Nike received more attention for the innovative HTML5 scroll down design.  In May, Puma released its first Environmental Profit and Loss statement, valuing its GHG impacts at $194 Million USD, the first such triple bottom line documentation in its class.

This November, both Nike and Puma have been making headlines.  Nike released its Material Sustainability Index (MSI) via Earthster, sharing its framework developed from years of sustainability research, design and collaboration. The index is only available to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition but Nike plans to release it to the public in 2012.  Puma just announced its current research and development of compostable clothing and footware.

In case anyone forgot who really is king of the sustainable athletic market, this fall Patagonia threw in its curve ball campaign announcing its partnership with eBay to encourage customers to “Buy Less.” The partnership endorses and encourages a secondhand market for Patagonia’s products.

In many ways there are similarities between the sustainability branding campaigns and initiatives of Nike and Puma.  Both companies are adopting the cradle-to-cradle framework to their systems and designing processes.  Both companies committed to the challenge presented by Greenpeace to eliminate any discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020, forming the Joint Roadmap Towards Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals along with competitor Adidas.

When it came to creating the brand of sustainability at each organization, both Nike and Puma adopted a strategy of creating a movement around reframing the word “sustainability.” Although both movements targeted demographically similar markets, the respective target customers have diverging sensibilities.

Nike reframed its sustainability message so their young customers can relate and be motivated to action.  Nike’s simple and clear “Better World” calls it like it is, much like its predecessor, “Just Do It.” Beginning with the highly acclaimed recycled advertisement, the website tells the story of how sports and Nike have been the vehicles of making the world a better place.  The message is consistent with the tone to which Nike’s consumer tribe has become accustomed and expect.

Puma also strives for simplicity, branding its sustainability as PumaVision.  In other words, a better world as Puma sees it: Fair, Honest, Positive and Creative. It is broken down into sub-sections of PumaSafe (safeguarding the environment), PumaPeace (promoting social justice) and PumaCreative (leveraging the arts for positive change).  Arguably, Puma has taken a more traditional or conservative approach to communicating its sustainability brand.  However, Puma clearly understands its market who seek information is a more traditional format.

Nike and Puma further diverge when implementing communication methods.  Through these channels, each of their core cultures becomes more evident.  CEO and Chairman Jochen Zeitz has been at the forefront of Puma’s sustainability messaging, presenting himself as Puma’s sustainability brand ambassador. Based on the PR, it is clear that Zeitz is the face and driver behind Puma’s sustainability brand and vision.  Zeitz recently participated in an online town-hall conversation with readers of the Guardian Sustainable Business blog.  Nike, on the other had, has taken a much more systemic approach, dispersing its leverage over a large team of department executives, advertising and social media, focusing much of its effort on innovation through collaboration.

Both Nike and Puma have catapulted the sports apparel industry into the media spotlight many times over this past year.  It will be interesting to see how the PR of 2011 develops into the actions of 2012.

Izabel Loinaz is the CEO of Spring Partners, Inc. and a GRI certified sustainable business consultant focusing on the sport, fitness and wellness industries, as well as an MBA candidate, Presidio Graduate School, 2012.  Follow Izabel on Twitter @IzabelLoinaz.