Interview: Why PUMA SEA moved away from virtual influencer Maya

PUMA Southeast Asia has moved away from its virtual influencer Maya which it first launched in February last year. Maya was brought on board to promote its Future Rider sneakers alongside other human influencers. PUMA previously described her as "Your average not so average Southeast Asian virtual girl". PUMA Southeast Asia's head of marketing, Eleanor Wang, told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE in an interview that the Future Rider sneakers launch was a key product launch for the company. It was "one with longevity" in the brand's main collection, and the brand wanted to make it to make an impact.

The launch also coincided with the beginning of the pandemic and PUMA had to respond to market changes previously, Wang explained. Hence, it decided to use a virtual influencer strategy to capture consumers' attention. "With the expansion of our performance focus, such as the Nitro collection earlier this year, our focus has since shifted accordingly," Wang said. 

Maya was previously active on Instagram, first posting in January last year. A check by MARKETING-INTERACTIVE found that Maya's last Instagram post was on 24 August last year. The virtual influencer used to post lifestyle images of her in PUMA gear and her activities with other models. 

While PUMA is no longer actively using Maya in its marketing plans, the brand managed to gain insights on the advantages and disadvantages of using a virtual influencer as compared to working with a real-life human. With the advancements in technology, Wang explained that Maya enabled the brand to merge a vast diversity of faces and study a multitude of online interactions. Through this, PUMA had the ability to craft a personality that resonated with primary markets across Southeast Asia such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. 

Furthermore, Maya provided an element of surprise as it was possible to have a "brand-new personality that no one had presumptions about, compared to a real human, where some people might already have an opinion on him/her", explained Wang. However, the act of building virtual influencers from scratch and using them also has its own challenges. For example, Wang said doing so meant having to build its own following and work to gain credibility and interest from online users, which requires more time and effort than tapping into an existing fan base.

Despite moving away from Maya, Wang said this decision was not a shift in social media strategy but a digital strategy to move towards full-funnel strategy to connect with its consumers. Via its PUMA advocate programme, the brand strives to reach out to its consumers during every stage of their loyalty journey. "Even when creating brand concepts, regarding products or marketing stories, we will focus on a digital lead approach", she explained. With regards to the shift in strategy, Wang said PUMA hopes to gain brand visibility and a larger share of voice in the eCommerce space.

Pandemic's impact on marketing

Like many brands, PUMA has also witnessed a shift in consumer appetites. Wang said consumers now prefer to purchase items that stand the test of time, which has led the company to further emphasise the importance of creating items with longevity. "The reintroduction of our Run PUMA category came at a good time as we know these will be a part of our permanent collection. With everything adapting to go virtual, it was also important to us to focus on our eCommerce platforms, and digital strategy as a whole," she explained.

Its three key Southeast Asia markets are Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia and while the countries have different cultures, Wang said they are also similar yet unique in various aspects. At times, PUMA found it challenging to find common ways of marketing that appeal to each country, but when done cohesively, Wang said it can come together to create an even bigger impact. The introduction of Maya was a good example, as it allowed the brand to appeal to the region as a whole. 

"As we seek to appeal to the region as a whole, it’s also important for us to have representation for each country, to ensure visibility for different consumer markets while creating a sense of community within the region," Wang said. The brand introduced her alongside the three regional ambassadors in the Future Rider campaign – Tosh Zhang from Singapore, Adipati Dolken from Indonesia and Ismail Izzani from Malaysia. 

When it comes to brand ambassadors, PUMA targets those who align with its core values and those who the brand believe can empower its message even further. "With that said, it is important that there is a mutual level of respect and understanding between the personality and the brand. At PUMA, we seek collaborations with individuals with distinct personalities, yet are able to reflect the PUMA DNA in one way or another," Wang added. PUMA currently works with Vox Eureka, Directions Group in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia respectively for PR duties. Meanwhile, m/SIX Singapore is managing its media duties for Southeast Asia. 

Meanwhile, PUMA also recognises new media platforms emerge that are "shaking up the scene", with TikTok being one of them. In fact, Wang sees TikTok as a marketing trend that brands should take note of, describe it to be "an exciting space with a multitude of subcultures that appeal to different tastes, fuelled by a broad spectrum of creators and helmed by the youth".

"We have observed how TikTok is a great platform in reaching out to our Gen Z consumers in Southeast Asia and a tool when it comes to paid media for SEA markets. It allows us to strategically target our consumers based on specific interests and topics," Wang explained. That said, TikTok is still new to PUMA and the team will continue to observe and learn before taking further steps. Wang explained that it is important for the brand  to ensure and maintain a high level of engagement with its consumers, and it has observed that Instagram is the platform that does that best for now. PUMA currently has a TikTok account with 1.2 million followers. A check by MARKETING-INTERACTIVE found that the videos are mainly global ones.

In addition to TikTok, Wang also highlighted the trend of live selling, where sellers engage with the audience in live streams on platforms such as Facebook Marketplace or Instagram Live. According to Wang, live interactions are a very direct form of engagement that can help build rapport with consumers, which PUMA feels is important.

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