It has gone down as one of the most intense corporate rivalries in history. Two competing athletic shoe manufacturers in the same town directly across the river from one another. Employees were forbidden to date or marry anyone from the enemy camp. But this was more than just your typical corporate rivalry. This was a battle that divided two brothers whose hatred and bitterness towards each other knew no bounds. This is the story of sporting giants Adidas and Puma and the family feud that fuelled an entire industry.
Adolf “Adi” Dassler and Rudolph “Rudi” Dassler were brothers born two years apart right at the turn of the 20th century in the German town of Herzogenaurach. After both returned from World War I, the brothers started a shoe company called Gebruder Dassler Schuhfabrik or “Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory”.
The pair oversaw the company with moderate success but their big break came with the opening of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Despite being a public supporting the ruling Nazi party, Adi made it his mission to court the most impressive athlete appearing in those games, African-American sprinter Jesse Owens. Owens would famously humiliate Hitler for defeating his theory of Arian supremacy by sweeping four gold medals, but this didn’t stop Adi from risking the wrath of the Nazi party by convincing Owens to wear the Dassler Brothers athletic shoes. In her 2008 book Sneaker Wars, Barbara Smits details Adi’s reasoning for pursuing Owens despite the obvious dangers, by writing, “Adi just had this obsession with sports at the complete exclusion of anything else – he just picked Jesse Owens because he was a fabulous athlete.”
WWII and Heightened Tensions
Despite the success and boost in sales that came from the sponsorship at the Berlin Olympics, tensions began to grow between the brothers. They disagreed on business philosophy and practice, and at home it was clear their wives did not care for one another. This all lead to a festering of resentment that would boil over from perhaps both the silliest and most serious miscommunication in corporate history. As the legend goes, Adi and his wife were hiding in a bomb shelter during one of the Allied bombing raids of World War II. Rudi and his wife rushed in to join them. As they did, Adi was heard exclaiming, “The dirty bastards are back again,” referring to the Allied warplanes. However, Rudi, convinced that Adi was actually talking about himself and his wife, took great offence and never forgave his brother for the insult.
Later in the war, Rudi was arrested by the Allies on suspicion of working for the Gestapo. Rudi suspected that he was ratted out by his own brother. As it turned out, this was not paranoia getting the best of him – it was later confirmed by a report filed by an American investigator. The end result was that Rudi languished in a POW camp while Adi sold shoes to American soldiers.
With World War II coming to a close, it was clear the two brothers could no longer work together. Rudi decided to open up a competing athletic shoe company and built his manufacturing plant directly across the river from Adi’s. He wanted to use a combination of his first and last name “Rudi” and “Dassler” and named the company Ruda. He soon changed it to Puma after realizing this was a much better name. With the original company all to himself, Adi decided to change the name as well. He copied the first and last name device and rebranded his company as Adidas.
The split was both a blessing and a curse to the town of Herzogenaurach. Economically, it was a boom with both plants providing employment for anyone in the town who sought it. But the social ramifications went beyond anything anyone had seen or experienced before. The two companies were more than just rivals – they treated each other and those who work for them as they hated enemies. Everyone had to choose a side and there was no fraternization with the enemy. The townspeople soon called themselves “Bent Necks” for the practice of having to look down and see what type of shoe person was wearing before they could decide to say hello or be friendly to them.
Adidas Gains the Upper Hand
In the mid 1950’s, Adidas began to take the upper hand in sales and brand recognition in the global sporting goods industry. As Barbara Smits details in her book, it was once again Adi who found himself in the right place at the right time in the history of world athletics.
“One of the critical failures for Puma was that Rudolf had an argument with the coach of the German soccer team, and that allowed Adidas an opening before the 1954 World Cup, where, completely against all odds, West Germany won against Hungary … Adi Dassler was in all the [newspaper] pictures; he was everywhere. And the Adidas black boots with the stripes were on all the players. From that moment on they received letters from around the world from people wanting to sell Adidas in other countries. As good as the Puma boots were, it would take many years to build up its international business.”
The Blind Spot
Many have written that the fierce and bitter hatred the brothers felt for each other can be credited as reason for their success over the years. If not for this, perhaps neither would have been as successful as they became. But if their focus on each other fuelled their success in the early decades, it is also what nearly ruined their businesses in the later ones. Neither Adidas nor Puma was able to correctly identify and strategize for the threat that Nike represented. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Nike decimated both companies in market share and brand identity. Puma was later bought out by Gucci, which is perhaps the only reason it still exists today.
The Dassler brothers died four years apart in the 1970’s without ever resolving their feud. In death as in life, they are buried at opposite ends of the same Herzogenaurach cemetery.