There are a lot of rival companies in the world today. But in the world of sneakers, the two of the biggest action-packed rivalries one can think of are Adidas vs Puma.
But did you know that the founders of Adidas and Puma were two halves of a once-happy family business that turned into a level of brother rage so intense it will get the sneaker heads’ tongues wagging?
When we say action-packed, we mean it as the story involves World War II, the Olympics, the football World Cup, stealing, affairs, resentment, and even the Nazi party.
So, are you ready to read about the two brothers who were united by shoes but separated by egos?
Let’s dive right into it…
Adidas vs Puma
Adidas and Puma are by far on the list of top 10 shoe companies in the world. But in spite of them being tough competitors to each other, they actually come from the same family and are in fact the protagonists of what might have been one of the biggest family feuds to date.
We have Rudolf Dassler, Rudi for short, who was born in 1898 in Herzogenaurach. Then, we have his younger brother Adolf Dassler, Adi for short, who was born two years later in that same town.
Herzogenaurach is actually the name of a small town in Germany known for its textiles and shoes.
It’s about 30 minutes outside of Nuremberg with a population of around 25.000, which doesn’t even place it on the list of the 300 largest German cities.
In fact, despite its small population, Herzogenaurach somehow contained 50 to 60 small shoe factories, and the brothers built on Herzogenaurach’s manufacturing traditions.
What a cool thing. Two of the largest shoe and sportswear companies in the world are headquartered in this small German town to this date.
Pauline Dassler, their mother, ran a laundry business out of their home and their father moved into shoemaking since it was becoming a popular trade in the area.
Rudi had previously worked with his father at the factory making shoes and Adi had been involved in repairing shoes.
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Post World War I
We have to drive back to the 1920s when the Dassler family was a poor German family. Their earnings came from making custom slippers and shoes. Both brothers respected and embraced their father’s tips for the trade.
But it all started after World War I in 1919 when Adolf and Rudolf Dassler established the German Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory “Gebruder Dassler Schufabrik” in their mother’s laundry room in Herzogenaurach in 1924. The company is called “Geda” for short.
Here’s a photo of the actual house and I believe that the room in the top left is where it all started.
Both brothers had their natural gifts. While Adolf was a natural craftsman and designer, Rudolf was a natural salesman who made sure that the shoes did a good selling. The different strengths of the two made them good partners.
Although people in Germany were undergoing the trauma that was caused by World War I and the failure of multiple business establishments due to the poor economy, Geda was successful as shoes were an item that was very important to the people.
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The Olympics & Jesse Owens
Geda’s most remarkable point in popularity came during the 1936 Olympics when their shoes adorned the feet of legendary gold-winning Olympian Jesse Owens.
Jesse Owens was incredible and he became the star of the whole thing. The Dassler brothers’ shoe company received a lot of attention and caused the sales to start exploding and everything was looking good.
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World War II
It was pretty safe to say that business was booming and things were going smoothly for the Dassler brothers.
Then came the infamous World War II which put a wrench into things and just turned the company upside down and caused major destruction in Europe.
The country no longer needed athletic shoes. They needed boots and equipment for the soldiers and so that’s what they did.
However, during Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Regime, Geda was able to supply enough shoes to the members of the Nazi party thereby incorporating themselves among the party as it gave them leverage over other companies.
But with all that success, the brothers started facing friction in their relationship. The town chronicles described the spat between the brothers to Herzogenaurach the same as the building of the Berlin Wall for the German capital and still continues to divide the townsfolk.
What exactly split the brothers so much so that they became rivals for the rest of their lives?
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What Caused The Rift Between The Dassler Brothers
There are many claims as to why the brothers separated, but these are the most popular ones…
1. The relationship between the two of the brothers’ wives was pretty bitter and it led to many complications in the family, especially since they lived in the same house.
2. World War II paused the production of Geda as Rudolf had to take up arms and go to the battlefield.
It said that Rudolf was jealous of his brother who did not take part in the war while he did. He also suspected that his brother somehow had something to do with that and wanted him out of the way so his brother could run the business on his own.
3. There is also another theory that while Rudolf had fled the Nazi front in 1945, he was arrested on his way back and sent to an American POW Camp.
Rudolf suspected that Adolf gave the US occupiers information about his brother to get himself out of the way or at the very least did nothing to try to get him out.
4. Many people believe that it involved stealing inside the business that broke them up.
5. There are also many who are convinced that the spat happened because Rudolf had an affair with Adolf’s wife Kathe which Adolf never forgave.
6. The town chronicles also mentioned an incident during the Allies’ bombardment in 1943 when Adolf and his wife apparently found safety in a bomb shelter beside Rudolf when Adolf commented: “The schweinehunde (pig dogs) are back!”.
Although Adolf insisted he was talking about the allied forces dropping bombs over their town, Rudolf was convinced that his brother was foul-mouthing him and his wife.
This must have been a hostile relationship already, but I guess Adi took offense to this and it just seems like this might have been the point of no return. Things just got crazier from there.
Overall, maybe it was either of these incidents or maybe it was all these quarrels combined and the result was inevitable.
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Adidas vs Puma
After the World War, the brothers split the company and established their individual companies on either side of the river Aurach which runs through the middle of the town of Herzogenaurach. It was symbolic in a way.
In 1948, Rudolf established Puma and Adolf founded Adidas in 1949. Adolf decided to call his company Adi-Das which is a play on his nickname Adi-Das(ler).
Rudolf tried to go the same by naming his company Ru-Da but eventually renamed it Puma because, let’s face it, that’s just a cooler name.
Also, the workforce and resources were divided among the two companies because at least one member of each family was employed at the Gebruder Dassler. Thus, it was the beginning of Adidas vs Puma.
The split meant the people of the town had to choose who they wanted to work for and who to marry.
This even extended to different pubs, butchers, bakeries, and gravestones for Adidas and Puma workers even to the point where an Adidas and a Puma employee being friends was impossible to think of.
There were two elementary schools in the town, one of which was for children whose parents worked at Puma and the other for the children whose parents worked at Adidas.
Again, Adidas and Puma polarized the community with local people picking sides by picking shoes. And since people would always look down at the shoes to check the brand, the town got the famous moniker “The Town of Bent Necks”.
The two brothers were now physically separated and each one had his individual approach to the shoe business.
While Adolf had a strategy that revolved around robust and productive design, Rudolf’s approach was more sales-oriented with him being efficient in marketing and finance.
The vigorous and aggressive method with which both these companies tried to market their respective products created a revolution in the marketing of sporting goods.
In the years that followed, they competed intensely with each other. Introducing new lines of shoes with new features and improvements has been a big part of it.
In 1952, Puma developed the first shoe with screws and studs.
Then in the 1960s, they were the first to make a shoe with that Velcro strap. But their biggest means of competition arguably to this day is marketing, notably for Adidas.
Right after the separation, Adidas introduced their famous three stripes. It’s not even a logo but more of a design. Yet, it instantly conveys their brand.
It’s actually an extension of the original company. They were known for their two-stripe design which actually just started as a means of fastening the shoe together.
They have had so many issues over the years trying to stop other companies from putting stripes on their stuff.
The applicable one here is when they sued Puma for designing a shoe that had four stripes in a similar position.
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World Cup & Olympics
During the 1954 World Cup, there was strife between the team manager of the West Germany team and Rudolf Dassler which Adolf took to his advantage by sponsoring Adidas shoes to the team.
The team eventually went on to win the World Cup thereby boosting the popularity of Adidas universally.
In the following Olympics, the two brands sponsored their shoes to each different athlete thereby initiating the sponsorship process.
Puma was able to sign deals with the Brazilian national football team while Adidas shook hands with none other than Muhammad Ali.
Although the sophisticated marketing strategies of Rudolf caused Puma to lag behind Adidas in terms of popularity, the 1970 World Cup became a significant event for Puma as it helped them with the growth.
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Possibly the biggest part of all of it has been getting athletes to wear their shoes. That’s what’s got them big the first time around with Jesse Owens and it’s helped build them back up after the separation.
There’s hundreds of examples of this, but here’s the ones stand out.
Pele Tying His Shoelaces
Remember when we said that Puma had signed up a sponsorship deal with the Brazilian national football team?
This is the 1970 World Cup Final which was between Brazil and Italy. Brazilian Pele was among the greatest and most famous soccer players of all time and part of that Brazil team.
Puma offered him $25.000 to wear a pair of their shoes during that game with an additional $100.000 for the next four years with the condition that Pele would stop everything right before the game and draw attention to himself tying his Puma shoes right in the middle of the field.
So, he did it and the millions of people watching from all over the world witnessed the best soccer player in the world tie his Puma shoes right before playing in the biggest game. I don’t know if you can get any more attention than that.
Brazil went to win the World Cup that year, and needless to say, people started falling head over heels for Puma shoes.
To add another layer to it, Puma made this deal secretly so Adidas wouldn’t find out about it ahead of time because they had both agreed just to leave Pele alone.
West Germany – World Cup
It was a very notable unlikely victory for West Germany in the World Cup Final over what was thought to be a much better Hungarian team. West Germany was wearing Adidas shoes through the whole thing, which made the world aware of this new Adidas brand.
The intense sibling rivalry was obvious even after their deaths…
Feud Even In Death
Rudi continued running Puma until his death in 1974 at which point his son took over. Adi continued running Adidas until his death in 1978 at which point his family took over.
It is said none of the brothers talked to each other even when Rudolf was on his deathbed. It’s also reported that Adolf did not attend the funeral of his brother when Rudolf died.
The feud even continued after their death as the brothers were buried on opposite sides of the village graveyard. Proof that even in death, there remained a great bitter divide between them.
Obviously, the feud between Adidas and Puma lives on but not in the same way.
Reconciliation & The Famous Football Match
We are faced with conflict on these opinions as many people believe the Dassler brothers did reconcile before their deaths.
According to Helmut Fischer, Puma’s in-house historian, the Dassler brothers got their drivers to take them to a secret meeting in Nuremberg for half a day just six months before Rudi passed away.
However, he also stresses that they wouldn’t have told anybody even if they had reconciled because of the repercussions that would be caused between their workers, which certainly would have affected their businesses.
So, the town gradually defused its Adidas vs Puma tension after the brothers’ deaths in the 1970s and even more so after a diplomatic match was organized on the 21st of September 2009.
Employees of Adidas and Puma in the village where the two companies still have their headquarters came together and played a friendly soccer match and started the process of healing decades of enmity. To this date, the day of the match is called the “Peace Day”. They began a new era of love and even more shoes.
Wearing Adidas & Puma
The most astonishing thing about the people of Herzogenaurach is the branded clothes they wear. From young to old inhabitants, you can spot everyone sporting either Puma or Adidas from top to bottom.
Even today, people wearing a combination of the brands are rare to spot, and employees of either company still tease each other about the brands but in a funny manner.
Mayor German Hacker is probably the only person you will find in the town who wears a combination of the two brands to defuse diplomatic challenges.
He actually comes from a Puma family and says, “My aunt was a Puma veteran. As a child, I only had Puma clothes. Wearing an Adidas jacket would have been unthinkable.”
The presence of the companies in the town is noticeable building brand centers and showrooms of their most successful products.
There is even talk about a museum to be built for honoring the Dassler brothers. Adidas and Puma influenced the townscape, the town sports clubs, annual festivals, and the streets making it a heaven for sports historians and tourists alike.
Adidas vs Puma Today
The brothers have sued each other many, many times over the years over all sorts of design and trademark issues costing each other a fortune in lawyers and suits.
Today, the companies are amongst the top manufacturers for branded shoes. After the brothers’ deaths, the ownership was passed on to their sons, and subsequently, they became public limited companies in the 1990s.
Looking through some of their key figures like sales, assets, and market cap, I’d say Adidas is a lot bigger. Adidas is worth $51 billion on the stock exchange and employs people from across 100 countries. Puma lags behind worth $6.95 billion.
According to Statista, Adidas had a revenue of over $15 billion in 2019 and over $12 billion in 2021 while Puma had over $2 billion in 2019 an over $3.5 billion in 2021.
Famous Indian cricketer Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar is one of the significant sponsorship done by Adidas in the century.
Puma sponsors a wide variety of football players including Brazilian star player Neymar Da Silva Santos Jr. and Uruguay player Luis Suarez.
James Harden agrees to $200 million shoe contract with Adidas and Usain Bolt signs a $10 million deal to stay with Puma.
Puma also sponsor the Indian cricket player Virat Kohli increasing its popularity in India just as Adidas did with Sachin Tendulkar.
Puma say, “We have Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world on contract, we have Italy, the football world champions, and Madonna wears our products. We’re not doing badly”, and they are certainly not wrong.
The multiple endorsements tactfully placed by both Adidas and Puma and the excellent product quality coupled with the reputability have led to their significant growth throughout the years to 2022.
Although 100 years old, the two companies are still reaping golden profits. Some might have called the family feud unfortunate, but the shoe industry has definitely been blessed by the competitive spirit and the urge to be better radiated by both the brothers.
What a shoe war…
Many people, including me, consider this one of the biggest and longest-lasting business rivalries of all time. Depending on how you look at it, you can say this goes back 70 years, 100 years, maybe even more.
Time Magazine has identified this as one of the top 10 family feuds of all time and so it’s worth talking about.
I have a question, have they not been separated, would Adidas and Puma still see the same growth?
It’s a complicated answer since the competition between the two siblings fueled them into bringing about revolutionary changes in the world of marketing.
However, you could also argue that together, a genius in the production design and the other that excelled in marketing, could have quickly skyrocketed upwards.
We can’t know for sure. But what we do know is that Adidas and Puma are right at the front of the race.
Do you think if Adolf Dassler and Rudolph Dassler had stayed together and gone ahead with the company, they could beat Nike which is another maverick of the sneaker world?
Maybe and maybe not.
Tell us in the comments section below what you think about it. Or, you could tell us any other facts about Adolf and Rudolph Dassler or Adidas vs Puma we may have missed.