In the Age of Influencers, Rihanna's Fenty x Puma Success Proves Musicians Still Reign Supreme

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for PUMA
Rihanna at the FENTY PUMA by Rihanna Experience on April 18, 2017 in Los Angeles. 

In late 2014, German sportswear company Puma turned heads when they announced an unexpected appointment: they were naming Rihanna creative director of their women’s collections. While trading on a popular musician’s cultural capital to move product is nothing new—The Beatles were schilling headphones for Koss decades before Beats By Dre—forging this sort of hands-on creative partnership represents a new approach.

On an earnings call in late April, Puma’s CEO Björn Gulden revealed that the brand is surging, reporting a net income increase of 92% for the quarter. These results marked the continuation of an upwards trend that began soon after Rihanna came aboard; Puma’s share price has climbed nearly €200 since her role was announced, and she appeared to drive sales almost immediately. The Fenty x Puma creeper was voted best shoe of the year by industry bible Footwear News, and the singer's newest addition to her exceptionally popular line, a $90 jelly sandal released on May 25, has gone through several restocks across its global stockists.

And as of July 18,WWD reported that Puma said consolidated sales rose 16 percent in the second quarter to 968.7 million euros, adjusted for currencies. The sneaker giant also raised it's target for the year to between 205 million euros and 215 million euros, compared to a previous range of between 185 million euros and 200 million euros, having recorded an operating profit of 43.4 million euros in the second quarter.

So, why hasn’t every fashion and apparel brand gone out and hired a Rihanna of their own? Beyond the fact that there are very few artists who command the public’s attention in the way Rihanna does, industry experts aren’t sure that celebrity endorsements have as big an effect on results as Puma’s good fortunes might suggest. Matt Powell, a sportswear analyst at market researcher The NPD Group, is skeptical. “I see little correlation between artists signing and sales results,” he says. “Celebrity collaborations are very limited in scope, and therefore not commercial.”

 

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In other words, the brand-celebrity relationship can seem more impactful than it actually is—a sell-out sneaker or clothing collection doesn’t mean much to a company’s bottom line if it is produced in limited quantities. This is certainly the case with Kanye West’s involvement with Adidas, who produce his coveted Yeezy sneakers and have an ongoing relationship with the rapper-designer similar to Puma’s arrangement with Rihanna. One might argue that Kanye’s endorsement has had a halo effect on Adidas’ sales, but they would have a hard time backing it up empirically—especially when other sales data tells a different story. “Most of the juice in Adidas’s turnaround can be attributed to models like the Stan Smith and Superstar,” says Cam Wolf, menswear editor at fashion and culture site Racked. “The Superstar just wrapped two years in a row as the best-selling shoe on the market, and it’s hard to attribute that in any way to Kanye.”

That isn’t to say that a pop star’s co-sign can’t have an impact on sales, though—it’s just that brands need to be well-positioned to capitalize on it. In most cases, that means room to grow. On the high end, French luxury label Balmain saw explosive growth under young, Instagram-friendly creative director Olivier Rousteing, culminating in the €485 million sale of the brand in 2016 to Qatari investment firm Mayhoola. Rousteing amplified the brand’s perception by cultivating a network of famous friends, even walking the 2015 Met Gala’s red carpet with Justin Bieber. But at the same time, Balmain’s retail network was expanding aggressively. Bieber’s endorsement couldn’t have hurt the brand, but it’s unclear how much it ultimately helped it grow.

On the other end of the spectrum, a celebrity endorsement can have a massive impact for an emerging brand. “When I worked at Complex,” says Wood, “we would talk to a lot of smaller brands without name recognition that were worn by Jay Z, or Kanye, or Beyoncé. They all reported a lift on sales or awareness immediately after someone wore their stuff. I don’t think [Harry] Styles wearing Gucci can have the same effect because Gucci is never going to be lacking for stockists.”

The key to these endorsements is their perceived authenticity—the idea that these artists are wearing the brands not for any sort of compensation, but because they genuinely want to.  “People are obviously more likely to be interested in something if a celebrity they like vouches for something without getting paid for it,” says Wolf. “I’m sure there are marketing decks out there that talk about how much Gen Z values authenticity.” Powell agrees. While influencer marketing may have worked for a time in the fashion world, it has lost its potency as consumers have become aware that it is fundamentally identical to traditional advertising. Says Powell, “Peer influencers are the most important influencers in sneakers. The compensated ‘influencers’ have had little impact. Everyone knows they are paid to say what they say.”

 

when I got the vision #JELLYslides @PUMA

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An endorsement’s impact is also limited by product availability, and this is where Puma may have made its smartest decision. Wood explains: “Puma has done a really good job of taking [Rihanna’s] sold out sneaker models and creating similar core items. So, she’s selling her own Fenty shoes, but the needle is moved in a much bigger way by Puma selling a more widely available approximation of her sneaker.” By integrating visual cues from a limited product throughout the rest of the collection, Puma is able to scale the impact of their celebrity creative director.

As long as musicians are among the most famous people on the planet, they will always have commercial potential. They key to unlocking it is the right situation, the right strategy, and most importantly, the right product. “Both [Puma and Adidas] are making great product right now, which is the primary driver,” says Powell, reminding us that if a sneaker is a dud, it hardly matters who is telling us to buy it.