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Death of a Salesman, Starring Tiger Woods

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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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