Golf Marketers Lie in the Weeds as Tiger’s Brand Runs Amok

Three big competitors said Nike Golf’s problematic situation with Tiger Woods — the face of the brand — won’t influence their digital ad buying. Marketing reps for Callaway, TaylorMade, and Ping all told ClickZ their campaign agendas would go unchanged for the remainder of the holiday season as well as in 2010.

“Our online marketing planning hasn’t been affected by the Tiger Woods situation in the short term nor will it be in the long term,” said Pete Samuels, director of communications for the Phoenix-based Ping.

Bob Dorfman, creative director and sports marketing analyst with San Francisco-based Baker Street Advertising, doubts that will be the case. During televised weekend golf tournaments, when viewers simultaneously watch TV and browse the Web, he said major golf manufacturers will likely try to make in-roads with increased plays in SEM and display ads as their commercials appear on-screen.

Nike Golf doesn’t sponsor a major PGA star other than the world-famous Woods, whose public image has been devastated by a weeks-long scandal involving marital infidelity. It would take a transformative golf season for either Trevor Immelman, Stewart Cink, or Justin Leonard — Nike’s next-best players — to come close to picking up the slack when it comes to the brand awareness created by Woods in a summer weekend of television.

By contrast, Callaway, TaylorMade, and Ping sponsor numerous well-known pro players. In fact, before Woods came onto the sports scene in the 1990s, Nike Golf didn’t even exist. Tiger Woods has said he will suspend his career indefinitely, while other sponsored golfers play on in front of millions of viewers. Woods may all but vanish from the public eye for the spring and summer, hurting the Nike Golf brand and the golfer’s “TW” apparel line.

Expect Nike Golf to Scramble for Creative

According to New York-based market researcher TNS, Nike spent $84.4 million in cross-channel advertising for its golf products during the first three quarters this year, which was down from the $143.8 million it spent for the same period 2008. Whatever placements Nike Golf buys this year will likely be scrubbed of Woods’ image, Dorfman suggested.

“What Nike has tended to do in the past when some of their athletes have had issues is lay low,” he said. “They’ve come up with marketing alternatives that do not use that athlete. They’ve done it with [basketball star] Kobe Bryant and others, while remaining loyal to them.”

Not everyone has been so loyal. Accenture, which ended its sponsorship deal with the golfer last weekend, removed his face from the company’s home page and most references to his name on the site within hours of its announcement.

Wieden+Kennedy, a Portland, OR-based agency for Nike, didn’t respond to phone and e-mail inquiries. Meanwhile, the sports brand has yet to noticeably alter its online strategy for Woods. For instance, a Google search for “Tiger Woods” currently generates a Nike.com placement at the top of the sponsored links. Keying in the words “Tiger, Nike” also brings a top sponsored placement for the brand.

The golfer is also still prominently highlighted at Nike.com/nikegolf, with a “Tiger Woods” link on the top navigation bar. Clicking through brings the viewer to a “TW” section that pitches the golfer’s apparel line, while offering four video clips that feature him.

Yet if the scandal persists and Woods sits out for a big chunk of the upcoming year, Dorfman expects Nike Golf to engage in a messaging strategy that only pushes the general brand to the golf audience. “I think the ‘swoosh’ is still safe,” he said, referring to the logo.

Celebrity Athlete Spokesmen Making Brands Nervous

To some, Callaway would seem the perfect fit to launch or redeploy an integrated campaign during this holiday shopping season in the wake of Woods’ problems. After all, like Nike Golf, it has a flagship sponsored golfer, Phil Mickelson, who is a rare rival to Woods when it comes to both sinking long putts and selling products. It stands to reason that the Carlsbad, CA-based firm could differentiate its brand from Nike/Woods simply by highlighting Mickelson more at this juncture in time.

When asked if such an effort had been considered, Krista Osol, an accounts supervisor with Callaway’s ad agency, Eleven Inc., San Francisco, replied with a flat, “No.” She offered no further comment.

The problem with a player-versus-player marketing strategy in this 24/7 tabloid media climate, Dorfman said, is the almost un-vettable nature of married sports celebrities who travel constantly — while attracting a steady stream of potential new company. “The question that is a little scary now: Is the Woods story going to open the door for more scandals to come out on golfers?” he said.

While Nike Golf’s marketing strategy will definitely change in 2010, Dorfman argues its product sales probably won’t suffer greatly. Ron Masters, Internet manager for the Murrieta, CA-based West Coast Golf Online, said orders for Nike products haven’t significantly changed since the scandal story began unraveling on Thanksgiving Friday. But he added if Woods doesn’t play all summer, such a scenario would open the door for the competition to chip away at Nike Golf’s consumer base.

If any of the other competitors has a sponsored player win multiple “Grand Slam” PGA events next year, Masters believes it will gain market-share that could have belonged to Nike Golf. “If I were to pick one brand to capitalize, it would be TaylorMade,” he said, “because they have the most players on the [PGA] Tour.”

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