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Death of a Salesman, Starring Tiger Woods

<a href=Tiger Woods window" width="620" height="465" />

Oh Tiger, what are you doing, man?! How can the biggest personal brand in sports, the best golfer ever, double-bogey like that (or nonuple-bogey, actually, presuming there are, in fact 10 mistresses and marriage is a par-one)?

Tiger makes $100 million or more per year from endorsements—more the result of his personal brand than his golf swing. His brand transcends the sport. He is The Natural, and he gives youth to a sport that skews old in its demos. His squeaky clean image made him a no-brainer for marketers and ad agencies.

None of this really changed when he smashed his car driving down a residential street he'd driven hundreds of times before or even because there was something fishy about the whole incident; it changed because he stonewalled.

In an era of social media, the table-stakes of branding are honesty, openness, and transparency. We all knew something happened, and we knew brand Woods should talk about it, explain it, let us forgive him for it. And we probably would have forgiven him, but now we can't even consider that without smirking and thinking of him as fodder for Letterman's top 10 and tabloid headlines about "the back nine."

I'm not sure why a big brand like Tiger didn't have better brand management. Tiger didn't say anything for a few days and then blogged, "This is a private matter and I want to keep it that way. Although I understand there is curiosity, the many false, unfounded and malicious rumors that are currently circulating about my family and me are irresponsible." Sorry, private citizens don't make tens of millions of dollars in endorsements. You are public. Brands exist in the mind of consumers that don't like being lied to.

Need a testament to people wanting and needing to know more? Tiger Woods was the number one source of traffic to news sites in December, according to New York research firm Experian Hitwise.

How brands respond in a crisis can be decisive. In 1990, Perrier was the coolest drink around, ordered by name as if it were an exotic mixed drink. Then laboratory technicians in North Carolina who regularly used Perrier as purified water in lab tests discovered an unacceptably high level of benzene (a carcinogen) in Perrier. According to the Economist in August 1991, Perrier broke the first rule in a crisis: "Don't play the problem down." Before they knew the real source of the problem, they announced it was "just one region (North America)," which turned out to be false. They joked at a press conference in Paris saying they were pulling the product off shelves worldwide because publicity is good! Net/net, management stonewalled the issue, market share plummeted, and the brand never recovered.

Contrast that with the Tylenol poisoning in the 1980s. J&J's response was quick and decisive, pulling all products off the shelf and eliminating capsules as a product form. I remember an article in The New York Times where experts were split on whether or not the brand name was still viable. Some need to surrender their expert badges; Tylenol maintained public trust because of how it responded and regained all of its market share.

Today, branding is about two-way loyalty; a consumer has a right to ask, "How will you show loyalty to me?" Loyalty is also about forgiveness. I think the public would have forgiven Tiger's transgressions, but I don't think the public will completely forgive him for not voluntarily coming clean ... for Tiger not showing loyalty back to his fan base.

In the world of athlete celebrity endorsements, an article in Promo Magazine (Sept. '07) talked about the need for careful 360-degree research on athletes, ensuring their "brand attributes" match those of the marketer to be endorsed and the need for an "exit strategy" in case things head south. The marketing research firm, Marketing Evaluations, Inc. The Q Scores Company (Manhasset, New York) tracks "Q scores" of roughly 1,800 celebrities. The scores are used to evaluate how positively or negatively the public feels about a celebrity and show how fast things can change after an incident. Two years after the rape charge, Kobe Bryant's unfavorable Q score was 53% (vs. 35% before the incident). Michael Phelps' unfavorable Q score went from 11 to 21 pre-post the bong photo. It used to be that this risk applied to most athletes, but not to Tiger; never to Tiger.

Now, Tiger has introduced risk into the equation and that will undoubtedly hurt his marketing value. Will he rebound? Will he conjure up unfavorable semi-conscious associations in the consumer mind? We just don't know for sure yet. We're all somewhat risk adverse so why take the chance? I can picture a marketer and their agency agreeing, "Maybe we better go with Jeter."

Read more of Joel Rubinson's Brave New Marketing blog

Joel RubinsonJoel Rubinson is Chief Research Officer at The ARF, where he directs the organization's priorities and initiatives on behalf of 400+ advertisers, advertising agencies, associations, research firms, and media companies. Joel is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and an active blogger. He holds an MBA in statistics and economics from the University of Chicago and a BS from NYU and never leaves home without his harmonica. Follow him on Twitter: @joelrubinson.

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  • NewHigh Score

    Accenture ended up dropping Woods? But it's strange that they put up an ad like this before that, yes?

  • Adam Zak

    Let's not analyze this Tiger thing to death. A guy with a beautiful and loving wife goes out and cheats on her, multiple times. He's an idiot. End of story.

  • Richard Geller

    "To the person who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail"
    There is something so self-absorbed and self-important about viewing this very human story through the lens of the Tiger Woods brand that it gives me the heebie-jeebies. I don't give a %&#@ with whom Mr. Woods had sex, and I'm not much interested in golf. Great golfer succumbs to temptation... what a shocker... never saw that coming. We're the real story. What a sad bunch of glow-in-the-darks at this time of year.

    Richard Geller

  • Joel Rubinson

    Since I wrote this piece,Tiger announced he would be leaving golf indefinitely and he was dropped by Gillette and Accenture. His crisis management is just horrible. Is he calling the shots or is he getting really bad advice?

  • Jason Coup

    I enjoyed the post but I do get a bit nervous when we start comparing brands like Tylenol and Perrier to a person. I understand the fact that there are similarities and that you're talking more about brand Tiger than the person, but when you're dealing with a person I don't really think you can or should separate the two. There are a lot of additional variables at play when you're dealing with a person, and I think we need to take great care when making associations like this.

    Jason C.

  • Jason Coup

    I enjoyed the post but I do get a bit nervous when we start comparing brands like Tylenol and Perrier to a person. I understand the fact that there are similarities and that you're talking more about brand Tiger than the person, but when you're dealing with a person I don't really think you can or should separate the two. There are a lot of additional variables at play when you're dealing with a person, and I think we need to take great care when making associations like this.

    Jason C.

  • Jason Coup

    I enjoyed the post but I do get a bit nervous when we start comparing brands like Tylenol and Perrier to a person. I understand the fact that there are similarities and that you're talking more about brand Tiger than the person, but when you're dealing with a person I don't really think you can or should separate the two. There are a lot of additional variables at play when you're dealing with a person, and I think we need to take great care when making associations like this.

    Jason C.

  • Aly-Khan Satchu

    What is clear now is that the c21st is a World that is a Looking Glass World and an Accelerated One. The Outsize Risk is exactly at the Tipping Point. Tiger Woods tipped that weekend and You are absolutely correct to note that not coming clean has meant the Story rapidly ran its own course and the Tiger Woods Brand lost complete control. It is a modern day Shakespeare Play and Icarus rolled into one and in todays World he should have taken ownership at the GETGO.

    I recall the Perrier story from a different angle. I traded European Interest rates at the time and I was very Long the French Short End and the hamfisted Perrier response crashed the French Interest rate Curve. So even then the Perrier story was not contained but amplified and contaminated.

    Aly-Khan Satchu
    Twitter alykhansatchu

  • Robert Mote

    Lots of bad boys in sport. He must have known his days were numbered, a very cool customer.

    He is a golfer first and time will show if that is still true.

    The analogy to Apple/Microsoft I disagree with. Fundamentally, Apple are user-aware and grown from that perspective. They started with tiny percentages and have chipped away at the old block. Microsoft are product-driven and into recycling OS and programmes to keep the programmers marching on. Microsoft are not user-aware. The battle of the persona is a secondary branding.

    Tiger does not fit into this. He is selfish and shrugging his shoulders as if to say what can I do? Let's see if he can still play Golf, for sake of Golf without the secondary branding.

  • Brad James

    Odd when ex President Clinton had fellatio by a White-house intern in the Oval office no less, he kept his job.Even after he lied about it more than once.

    Oh but wait Tiger Woods is half black, but then there is no such thing as half anything, so he's black and the women were all white, shame on you Tiger Wood's shame on you.

    In the USA we like Tigers in our tanks, in our breakfast cereal, but not in our white women unless you marry them !

  • Tamara Bodi

    I think this is an excellent commentary. And, equally relevant for the PR person. Tiger's is a good lesson for anyone out there who handles the image and reputation for someone who prefers to keep things very close to the chest. In the past I've worked with such people. They are very difficult to convince, preferring, usually to their detriment, to remain in control of everything - especially the message. The problem is Tiger is not a PR person, but he thought (and may still think) he's a PR person. What he is is a golfer. He should have left the decision making to the PR professionals.

  • Erin O'Keefe

    Brands like Apple are interesting, considering we admire the product brand for the experience it creates, but ignore the leader brand - Steve Jobs' notoriously intense and workaholics-only culture; he and other leaders of the brands we become loyal to are not subject to our scrutiny. Why is treating workers like machines who can work 100 hour weeks acceptable to us, but indiscretions with extramarital behavior can strikes fury and outrage in the public? How is it that our unofficial public ethics include personal relationship behavior but not public/corporate behavior?

    Affairs have been happening since the beginning of time and will continue to happen until the end of time. What's insane is that we waste valuable public interest on the matters of the bedroom, when so many things are more worthwhile areas for discussion.

  • Deborah Rothman

    Considering the extent and nature of Woods' infidelity, including when his wife was about to deliver their baby, making each of the "other women" feel like they were the only one he cared about, etc., there is nothing any spinmeister could have come up with that would have rehabilitated the brand. I am hoping that his public statement was an acknowledgment of that reality, and an indication that his time and energies in the coming weeks and months is going to be devoted where it should have been all along--on creating from 'scratch' the kind of family relationship that will nurture and support all four of the Woods.

  • Chris Reich

    All great points and perfectly stated.

    I would like add a side topic---how much is enough? What exactly is Tiger Woods lacking that he needs to risk all to get more of it? Affection? Sex? Attention?

    This display of greed and need in a society of abundance beyond measure points to an underlying disease eating away at our national foundation. Why build a factory and employ workers here? We can have more if we outsource. More factories, more money....more. More. More. Until there is none.

    Strike "enough" from the American lexicon.

    Chris Reich

  • John LaTemple

    All this proves is that this nation needs to stop turning to athletes as role-models. Leave Tiger alone to handle his personal problems and start raising up people like Ron Paul to higher levels of adoration, your local fireman that saves lives, the teacher that puts in the extra hours and so many others. If anyone is expecting driven, competitive, testosterone-filled millionaires to NOT have mistresses, well, you are not students of history -- it isn't just talented golfers that are prone to do this, but Presidents, Kings and even Popes, too. Good morning.

  • Jim Prior

    Great piece. When Tiger came out and said that what had happened was "not being true to my values" he exposed the extent of his fraud. Not only has he lied to his wife but also to his sponsors and to the public by pretending to have values that are now so clearly untrue. There are plenty of 'experts' on sponsorship suggesting that all that matters is whether he stays on top of his game – they seem to think that sponsors will just shrug this off. I disagree. For them it's not about golf, it's about the underlying qualities he demonstrates that they wish to associate themselves with. When those qualities turn out to include dishonesty and deceipt the fact he can hit a golf ball straight is of little compensation. I wrote about it here

  • Greg Steggerda

    Agree but would add that people are loyal to brands when the brands are in line with their values. It's why the whole Apple/Microsoft thing isn't really about hardware or software, it's about what the brands represent to people. Tiger before represented a completely different set of values than Tiger after. We may have been able to identify with human weakness and forgiven, that's true, but I think the duration and scope of his infidelity, the content of the texts and phone messages (if they all are as alleged) cross a line with most folks. Openness and honesty aren't enough if people don't share the underlying values -- look at Howard Stern. If Tiger does manage to pull out of it, his brand could finally be closer to Michael Vick's -- rehabilitated goodness.

  • Joel Rubinson

    thanks for adding your comment. You made me think to tie this together with the notion of the long-term value of brands. I think Tiger's urges and what he did to his long term brand value is similar to what marketers do in packaged goods to their long-term brand value when they over promote. short-term gain at the expense of lasting value! Tiger Woods is like an allegory! Anyway, here is the blog posting on brand value

  • Paul Furiga

    Joel, great blog. One of the major problems in the whole Tiger scandal is that we are talking about more than a blog, we are talking about a person. And the "Tiger team," starting with its leader, has failed to connect with the people who first connected with him and his story, long before any marketer could come along and figure out how to package this person, and his compelling personal story, into that thing we call "brand." My colleague John Durante blogged about this earlier this week. Based upon our experience and what we've learned at our firm, Tiger failed first and foremost to be authentic, and to be true to his story. Without doing that, the sale of shoes and cars and such not only becomes less profitable but meaningless. Click here for more: