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5 marketing strategy in the golf equipment business

Marketing strategy in the golf equipment business: Parity vs “kickassery.”

I just bought a new driver. Not a two-year-old discounted driver, but a shiny new model from one of the biggest brands in golf. I did it for several reasons, none very rational:

  1. It’s been 8 years since I purchased a new club. I was due. I deserved it.
  2. A client of mine in the golf industry couldn’t shut up about this club. And he gave me a deal.
  3. I couldn’t find any consistency with my current driver.
  4. It was market research for this article.

It had nothing to do with distance. I had enough distance with the old driver. Just couldn’t find the fairway.

Which brings me to the topic at hand: Marketing strategy in the golf equipment business has always revolved around product launches. And every launch promises a few more yards.

But these days, only the most wonky sales reps get fired up about the frequent new product launches.

Because in golf, truly relevant product innovation is remarkably scarce. And when it does come along, it triggers a race of copycats, resulting in product parity across the board.

All the modern drivers are good. All the irons are good. And except for cosmetics, there’s no discernible difference between them. Those tiny little incremental engineering improvements are not relevant to 90% of the golfing public.

marketing in the golf equipment business

TaylorMade’s original “metal” wood was a true breakthrough that every manufacturer immediately copied. “Pittsburgh Persimmon” was a brilliant positioning statement, and it didn’t come out of the TaylorMade marketing department.

So when you’re in a category where there’s product parity, what can you do? What’s the marketing strategy when the marketing story’s not baked into the product?

You have to shift the battlefield away from the me-too product.

Take insurance, for instance. All policies are pretty much the same, so the battlefield has shifted away from product offerings to advertising messaging.

marketing strategy for product parityThe brand becomes more relevant than the product.

So you have interesting, true-life stories in Farmer’s Hall of Claims.  “Been there, covered that.”

You have mayhem man for Allstate, Flo for Progressive, the Geico Gekko and squawking ducks for Aflac. They’re all striving for differentiation in a sea of same ‘ol products. (read more on insurance industry disruption)

That’s where great advertising can really make a difference.

That’s not the case in golf. Product parity seems to have produced messaging parity as well. All the brands are blurring into one.

This headline from a fairly recent Cobra Driver ad sums it up: “Scientifically engineered for insanely long drives.”

Sounds insanely generic to me. (Thumb through some vintage Golf magazines from the early 60’s and you’ll see the exact same messaging.)

You could easily replace the Cobra brand name with Taylormade, Calloway, Ping or Cleveland, and no one would know the difference. They’re ALL claiming the same thing: More Distance. Longer, longer and longer yet!

The execs at Cobra are wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars conveying a message that applies to the entire category. So essentially, they’re advertising their competitor’s products as much as they’re promoting their own. TaylorMade and Calloway ought to thank them.

marketing strategy in the golf equipment business

In 2011 the execs at Callaway Golf recognized the need for something disruptive — something other than the next new product. They wanted to stir things up a bit, so they hired Justin Timberlake to be their “Creative Director.”

He said he was going to bring some Rock-n-roll “Kickassery” to the stodgy old golf market and appeal to a new generation of golfers.

Three ads were produced… filmed in Vegas with lots of pyrotechnics. Lots of flash. Starring Phil Michelson, Annika Sorrenstam and some guy named Quiros. The spots weren’t bad, but I suspect that the PR value of having Timberlake involved played better than the commercials.

The Callaway spots didn’t have a compelling story woven into them. It was all sizzle. No steak. Same old story.

Don’t you think that golfers have wized up to that promise by now? How can this month’s new driver be the longest driver ever built when last month’s driver made the same claim? And the one before that, and the one before that.

Give me a break.

In 2016 Tim Clarke, President of Wilson Golf, turned to reality TV in order to generate some kickassery for his brand. Wilson teamed up with The Golf Channel and did a Shark-Tank knock-off called “Driver vs. Driver” where ordinary folks were invited to submit ideas for a “groundbreaking new driver.”

marketing strategy in the golf equipment businessWith a $500,000 first prize it made for pretty good TV.

I have to hand it to him… Wilson’s not a major player in the golf club industry these days. (Not like they were back in the 60’s and 70’s.) Wilson drivers are simply not on the radar, and Clarke had the balls to try something completely different.

The result is the Triton driver, which is packed with every technological bell and whistle the Wilson engineers could possibly throw at it. It’s no better or worse than the top 10 drivers in the market, but there’s no doubt that many golfers who never would have thought of a Wilson Driver might at least give it a look. Or a few swings during demo days.

The show must have worked… Clarke recently signed-up for a second season. I’m not sure it’s going to ever product a breakthrough golf club, but it sure is a breakthrough marketing play for Wilson.

No matter what they do for R&D, Wilson and all the other clubmakers have a hard time coming up with genuinely new innovations like what Barney Adams accomplished with his Tight Lies Hybrid club in 1995.

Adams recently wrote:

“The golf equipment industry is a lot more like the fashion industry than many people are willing to admit. The actual differences between products are minor and often subjective. We don’t want to copy, but we are remiss if we don’t look at what seems to be popular and decide how to position ourselves.”

All the major brands now have hybrid clubs that are patterned after the Barney Adams original hybrid. They all have 460cc head drivers patterned after the original Big Bertha. They all have adjustable drivers, patterned after the TaylorMade.

So the question is, what’s the marketing strategy in the golf equipment business when all the equipment is equal? What do you do?

You throw money at it.

marketing strategy in the golf equipment business

But wait. Nike already tried that.

One of the most successful marketing organizations in the history of the world gave up on the golf equipment business.

Despite having unlimited funds, the finest club design facility (The Oven) and the biggest rock star golf has ever seen (Tiger) Nike never managed to gain more than a sliver of market share (3%) against Titlest, Calloway, Ping and Taylormade.

In fact, Phil Knight recently said that they “lost money for 20 years” on golf balls and equipment.

One could argue that it was a classic, line-extension faux pas… They assumed that their success with golf shoes and golf apparel would translate directly into golf equipment.

But Nike is a shoe company. That’s the brand’s position in the mind of every golfer and no amount of money, marketing muscle, or Tiger-inspired fervor could change that perception.

Consumers could understand and embrace Nike golf shoes but not Nike golf clubs or golf balls. It just didn’t compute.

Phil Knight is famous for saying “We’re a marketing organization and the product is our best marketing tool.” But that did not translate to the golf club market. Their clubs were good, but not better. Not differentiated.

So the Nike execs decided to pull the plug and go back to what Nike’s known for…

“We’re committed to being the undisputed leader in golf footwear and apparel,” said Trevor Edwards, president of the Nike brand.

Nike’s closest competitor, Adidas, also divested itself of its golf equipment business recently by selling TaylorMade Golf to a private equity firm.

That was a different deal altogether. Wisely, Adidas didn’t try to market their own brand of golf clubs. In 1999 they purchased TaylorMade, the originator of the metal wood and #2 in the market at the time.

At that time TaylorMade was owned by a ski boot company and was limping along with an ugly, bubble-shafted driver. Callaway had stolen the lead on the strength of the Big Bertha, so Adidas brought a new management team who decided to shake things up dramatically at TaylorMade.

Their disruptive new marketing strategy was operationally-based… Faster turnaround from one product launch to the next. (If you’re going to compete in a market of me-too products, might as well turn them around faster than anyone else.)

marketing strategy in the golf equipment business

First they launched three different drivers at the same time. Then they jumped immediately from the R300 series to the R500 series, basically doubling the speed of new product intros.

And it worked like crazy.

By the end of 2004 they had transformed TaylorMade from a $330 million second place player into a $552 million market leader (TaylorMade’s reign at the top lasted until January 2017, when they were once again overtaken by Callaway.)

Despite the company’s decade-long run at the top, t it still wasn’t profitable enough for Adidas to hang onto. According to the NYPost, TaylorMade “is deep in the red, losing around $80 million a year.

Perhaps it’s because they created a monster with their ultra-rapid release cycles. (When you’re selling more discounted, out-of-date drivers than you are new drivers, your brand is going to suffer.)

Or maybe it was mass confusion…  There’s no way the average consumer could decipher the difference between all those different models.

Or maybe it’s because of the messages that keep getting regurgitated with every new product release. The faster they launch, the more redundant, annoying and inauthentic the message becomes.

See, golfers have an innate sense for bullshit.

When a guy tells you that he crushed a drive 325 yards uphill, just the other day, we know he’s full of it. When a guy miraculously finds his ball, after a long search, and has a clear shot at the green, we smell a rat.

And sandbaggers… forget about it!

So, eventually, the ever-increasing volume and frequency of the same old message starts having a detrimental effect. Not only do we stop believing, we start resenting the ridiculousness of it all. Rocketballz was deemed to be even “Rocketballzier,” and consumers were calling BS on that.

But wait, it gets worse…  Even golf shoes can help us hit it farther these days.

Get a load of these he-man headlines from a recent Addidas campaign:  “Lock and load… 14 weapons in your bag. Two on your feet.” “Not a shoe, a piece of artillery.” 

Hoo-Ha!

The brand managers at Adidas are assuming that high tech features and a Rambo tone will sell shoes just as well as drivers. But as Spike Lee once said, “Is it the shoes? Is it the shoes? Is it the shoes?”

I think not. No one’s going to believe that shoes are equipment, on par with a new driver.

Here’s the copy from one of those shoe ads: “Three distinct power geometry zones in the outsole for maximum energy transfer during the load phase, impact and finish.”  

Sounds just like a driver ad. You can tell the engineers wrote that one.

Here’s what consumers will say: “Yeah, Whatever!…  They’re not too ugly. Are they comfortable?  Do they have them in my size?  How much?”  That’s what’s relevant to Joe six pack.

The claim that “high-tech features will make you hit it farther” may have worked for drivers, but it’s just too much of a stretch for golf shoes.

Here’s another golf headline that is utterly baffling to me: “GOLF MADE EASY” for Cobra Max.

Really??? That one’s even less believable than the generic “more distance” claim. Please, if you work for Cobra, give me a call. I’ll give you 20 reasons why you should delete that headline from your ads immediately. And I’ll give you 20 alternatives that will improved the click-through rates of those digital ads. Seriously.

Golf  is a category that takes itself quite seriously, indeed. In that type of environment, humor can be a refreshingly  effective way to differentiate your brand.

Titlest did it with John Cleese for the NXT Tour golf ball. FootJoy pulled if off brilliantly with their Sign Boy campaign. And Mizuno scored with a series of ads poking fun at the almost obsessive loyalty of their customers.

The Mizuno campaign is a rare example of golf advertising that was customer-focused, not product focused.

They leveraged the passion of Mizuno owners… guys who love their clubs so much they buy an extra seat on the plane rather than checking their bags. The ads were purposely, humorously, exaggerated, but they captured the authentic passion for the Mizuno brand that no competitor could claim.

Those ads would absolutely not work for any other club company. I don’t play Mizuno irons, but I aspire to. And those ads spoke to me. With a wink and a nod, Mizuno confirmed what I already thought… that their forged irons are for smart, accomplished players who know something the rest of the golf world doesn’t know.

Sad to say, Mizuno soon dumped that campaign and started running ads that lack the market wisdom, the emotional connection and the brand personality of the old ads. In fact, the new ads are generic enough to speak for any iron on the market.

marketing strategy in the golf equipment business

Another worthless, invisible message about distance. For a brand that’s known for its buttery feel. Go figure.

More message parity.

Successful marketing strategy in the golf equipment business involves some degree of differentiation. In a perfect world, you’d have something different to say, AND you’d say things differently.

Your story would be unique to your brand, AND the execution of the story would be more creative than anything else in the market. That’s the ultimate recipe for advertising success.

Mizuno and Adidas both have great products with a good story to tell. It shouldn’t be that hard to come up with an ad campaign that conveys the core brand benefit in a relevant manner, without resorting to the same, stupid promise of distance.

Remember the boy who cried wolf a few too many times?

My new driver seems to be working pretty well. But maybe my expectations are a little different than most… I don’t expect monumental gains in distance.

I don’t need kickassery. And I seriously doubt that it’ll be “Epic.”

I’m content with a smaller dispersion pattern and a little boost of confidence.

Want to learn more about disruption as a marketing discipline? Try THIS POST.  Or e-mail me directly: JohnF@BNBranding.com