I’m glad that savvy ad guy Terry O’Reilly has waded in on a subject that I (and a few million others) have been wondering about: how long corporate sponsors will choose to hang on to the marketing dead weight that is Tiger Woods. O’Reilly is a Canadian marketing whiz and co-author with Mike Tennant of The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture, as well as host of the popular CBC/Sirius Satellite radio program of the same name. He sums up Tiger’s future in corporate endorsements with ESPN writer Rick Reilly‘s memorable quip:
“Tiger is the first human being in history to run into a hydrant, and set himself on fire.”
Now, just for a moment let’s forget about what Tiger did or did not do with dozens of those Girls With Big Hair. And really, can we honestly be that shocked, after all, to learn that wealthy, young, studly, celebrity superstar athletes are groping groupies on the side?
From a public relations perspective, however, the way this issue has been handled after the story broke has been far more damaging to his corporate marketability than the adultery itself. “No comment” and three armed bodyguards? What was he thinking? It’s been wrong from the get-go, and a fiery topic among my PR pals whose expertise is to offer counsel on basic issues management and crisis communications – something that Tiger and his people seem to know tragically little about. Whether he loses millions through divorce or through endorsement contract loss, his problems are likely to get far worse before they get better.
But the question we ask Terry O’Reilly here is whether it’s possible for any celebrity to survive a personal train wreck of this magnitude of slimy-ness and still cling to a dwindling list of multi-million dollar corporate endorsements. Here’s O’Reilly’s take on the subject:
“I just read that AT&T is the latest advertiser to drop Tiger as a spokesperson. A lot of people are saying this scandal won’t hurt his image. I disagree.
“This is not your run-of-the-mill celebrity dust-up. Tiger Woods is the most marketable athlete in the world. He makes over $100 million in endorsements every year. Tiger is also the first athlete to pass the billion dollar mark in lifetime earnings, and he’s only 33 years old. He is on a trajectory to be the greatest golfer in history.”
O’Reilly points out that these are not the stats of a sports star, but the stats of a cultural icon. The implied code of conduct of a cultural icon says that the celebrity will not do anything that will reduce himself and his corporate sponsors to sleazy punchlines on late-night talk shows. O’Reilly reported over 20 instances in the first two weeks of the story where a joke on late-night talk shows paired Tiger with one of his sponsors.
O’Reilly describes recently driving by a giant billboard for Tag Heuer that showed Tiger wearing the expensive watch, gazing intensely off into space “like he’s doing long division”.
O’Reilly’s immediate headline revision:
“So many women, so little time.”
Like AT&T, the Swiss luxury watchmaker subsequently dumped Tiger from its ad campaigns. On December 18th, CEO Jean-Christophe Babin told Swiss daily Le Matin:
“We recognize Tiger Woods as a great sportsman, but we have to take account of the sensitivity of some consumers in relation to recent events.”
Other companies fleeing Tiger’s sponsorship death watch are Gillette and Accenture. Even Golf Digest has scrapped Tiger’s regular golf column.
Will corporate sponsors ever change their minds and reunite with the best golfer in the world? ESPN’s Rick Reilly offers this wisdom that just might work:
“He needs to freeze his corporate sponsors before they freeze him. He needs to tell them, ‘I’m not doing any ads or taking any payment until I can again prove myself worthy of your products. I’m sorry I’ve let you down. It won’t happen again.”
UPDATE: speaking of being frozen out, General Motors has now severed all official connections with Tiger. The GM endorsement contract ended in 2008, but he had been allowed to keep several GM vehicles until now, including a Cadillac SUV and a Buick Enclave crossover for his personal use. Other cancelled endorsement contracts include Titleist, American Express, and General Mills. And add Gatorade to that growing list of endorsement deals that Tiger has now lost. A PepsiCo spokesperson announced last month:
“We no longer see a role for Tiger in our Gatorade marketing efforts and have ended our relationship.”
Read the rest of Terry O’Reilly’s essay about Tiger’s future in corporate endorsements.