The Sneaker Wars Part 2: Sibling Rivalry

Adolph and Rudolph Dassler
Adolph and Rudolph Dassler

The battle between Adidas and Puma is no coincidence – their cut-throat competition founded on a blood rivalry.

There once was a company called Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik, formed after World War I by Christoph Dassler in the town of Merzogenaurach in Germany. Christoph’s two sons Adolph and Rudolph became active in the family business. With the help of partner blacksmiths who made spikes for track shoes, they built shoes for runners, and famously got American Jesse Owens to wear their track shoes at the 1936 Olympic Games. Owens won four gold medals in those shoes, and the Dassler brothers got incredible insight into the power of branding.

But the family business would not last. As Andrew Jennings wrote in his book, The Lord of the Rings: Power, Money, and Drugs in the Modern Olympics, “…the two brothers had a dreadful argument. So dreadful was the dispute that Adolph and Rudolph decided never to speak to each other again. They parted company and ran rival shoe businesses in the town on either side of the Aurach River.”

james cleveland owens – modell waitzer – 1936, sprint shoe worn at the olympic games in berlin; shoe size: 7,5 (uk), 162 g image © adidas
james cleveland owens – modell waitzer – 1936, sprint shoe worn at the olympic games in berlin; shoe size: 7,5 (uk), 162 g image © adidas

Adolph, who was called Adi by family and friends, combined his nickname and the first syllable of his last name to form the brand “Adidas”. Rudolph chose a sleek and powerful big cat to represent his shoe company “Puma”. The company not only split in two in 1948, so did the town, as Richard Hoffer explains in his book on the Mexico City Games, Something in the Air.

“This created a civic tension in the town, as well, as scores of employees were now forced to take sides, some with Adolf’s newly formed Adidas company, others with Rudolf’s Puma. It was said that townspeople walked the streets with their heads down, the better to check out their neighbors’ footwear, and thus identify their family allegiance.”

Adi Dassler and his son Horst would go onto dominate the world of sports marketing, getting their shoes and clothing on the most successful athletes in the world, and building a sports equipment empire. As Jennings reported in his book, when Horst Dassler died in April, 1987, Adidas was a company of 12,000 people, building 250,000 pairs of shoes every week, and garnering revenue of $2.2 billion for that year.

“At the Los Angeles Olympics, the last Games before Dassler died, he boasted that over eighty percent of the athletes who took to the track, swimming pool, football field, basketball court or boxing ring were wearing this products, displaying the Adidas three strip and trefoil motif to a TV audience of billions.”