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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. I hope that Adidas can do better than that, now that the TaylorMade engineers are out of the loop.

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

6 Truth, Lies, and Advertising Honesty.

I don’t comment on politics. However, the recent political dialog has certainly inspired this week’s post on brand authenticity, honesty and truth in advertising.

truth in advertising on the brand insight blog top branding blogIn politics, the standards for lying are lower than they are in business. You can sling mud and hurl half-truths at your opponent and get away with it. He’ll just sling it back. Or the populace will simply look the other way.

In business, it doesn’t work that way.

Consumers are quick to call you out, via social media, if your advertising is BS. And if you say nasty things about your competitors, you’ll probably get sued. It’s actually illegal to blatantly mislead consumers, and if you live in a small town, like I do, disparaging a competitor will almost always come back to bite you in the Karmic ass. Continue reading

2 Masterful Brand Management

It’s Masters Week — the biggest week of the year in golf, and a tide-turning event for several brands. Most notably, this one:

tiger woods comeback logo brand video

The Tiger Woods logo for Nike

Over the last 9 months the Tiger Woods brand has, shall we say, strayed a bit. The “indiscreations” of Tiger’s personal life have cost his brand millions in endorsement deals, and even more in public goodwill. As one sports writer put it, “it’s the most dramatic fall from grace in the history of sport.”

For Tiger Woods and company, The Masters represents the perfect venue for a comeback, and an ideal brand affiliation.

See, Augusta National is considered hallowed ground. It’s like the Sistine Chapel of the golf world and its annual invitational tournament is like Easter Sunday with the Pope. Every player and every “patron” out there considers himself blessed to be part of it.

Call it the halo effect… TW needs some of that sweet aroma of blossoming azaleas to rub the stink off of him.

The Masters Tournament Augusta NationalSo Tiger started the week in Augusta with a press conference. Every question was personal. Pointed. Charged. Every reporter wanted to rehash the events of Tiger’s private life. To his credit, Tiger’s responses seemed genuine and heartfelt. Not overly scripted. But it was obvious that his answers were thought out in advance. As they should be.

From what I’ve read, the CEO of Toyota, with all his PR advisors, didn’t handle things as well. Put the billion-dollar TW brand in that context for a minute… Toyota execs withheld information that put their customers at risk of death, and the press was easier on them than Tiger.

Different rules apply to our sports heroes.

In any case, Toyota has 50 years of dependable performance and customer loyalty to help pull it through this little bump in the road. And ultimately, when it comes to Tiger’s brand, performance will trump everything else.

As soon as he gets back to his dominant form and wins a few of these majors, like The Masters, people will begin to forgive and forget.

Keep in mind, his personal brand bordered on superhero status before all this crap came up. But every superhero has his kryptonite, and now we know what Tiger’s is.

The events of the last year have had a polarizing effect on the TW brand. The people who weren’t Tiger fans before really hate him now. And he seems to be universally despised by women.

However, among the men over 45 who make up 75% of the golfing public, he’s still more admired than despised. He still gets a standing ovation on the 12th tee at Augusta. Still inspires awe with his performance on the golf course. And that’s always good for business.

From a brand management standpoint, the other thing that TW and company did this week was launch a new commercial.

In classic, Nike fashion, the black and white spot features Tiger, just standing there looking stoic, while his father’s words hauntingly ask the questions that the entire world has been asking: “I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are… did you learn anything?”

The mainstream media and general public won’t recognize the voice and might see it simply as PR BS. Some have called it crass and creepy. Others are saying it’s “Exploiting his father’s memory.”

But the general public isn’t the target. Die-hard golf fans will know it’s the voice of Earl Woods, reaching out from the grave, and for them, it will have the desired effect.

It’s common knowledge that Woods and his father were very tight. One of the most poignant moments in golf history came shortly after Earl’s death… Tiger won the British Open and before he get off the 18th green he broke down completely in his caddy’s arms, grieving in front of the entire world.

So my hat’s off to the guys at Weiden & Kennedy. I think it’s fitting that it’s his father posing the tough questions. In fact, the whole concept hinges on it. Any other voice over and the spot’s not worth running.

Then there’s the look on Tiger’s face. They’re not making him look heroic. In fact, he looks like a guy in the doghouse, licking his wounds. Taking his medicine.

I believe the spot works from a damage control standpoint. And as far as brand personality is concerned, it fits. Tiger never was great at dealing with the fans. Not the most popular guy to get paired up with. Not the most forthcoming with an autograph or quick with a smile.

In other words, he was no Lee Trevino or Phil Michelson.

One thing’s for sure, the new commercial has a high buzz factor. And it makes you wonder, would all this have happened if Earl was still around, keeping an eye on his superstar son?

I was never really surprised by Tiger’s misbehavior. Dissapointed, sure, but not particularly surprised. He’s a rock star, after all. How many rock stars stay at the top of the game without a blemish for 15 years?

Just saying.

The Tiger Woods brand is definitely tarnished. But no matter what they think of his commercials or his off-course antics, no matter what they write about him, Tiger’s brand will recover and thrive because he’s so amazingly good at what he does.

His performance will dictate the script of his brands success. It may not come this week at Augusta, but it will come.

Tiger Woods promises to light up a golf course like no contemporary player can. He’ll always be intensely passionate. He’ll give everything he has to every golf shot he hits, and leave nothing on the course.

But I don’t think the TW brand promise ever went much further than that.

2 Travel industry advertising – Wales misses the fairway by a mile.

Humor me for a minute. I seldom use the Brand Insight Blog to critique ads. It’s just too easy to just snipe about details like an idiotic headline or the lazy use of stock photography. But I recently ran across an ad for Wales that’s simply too bad to pass up.

It’s a perfect example of what’s missing from most brand messages and a relevant case study of what NOT to do in travel industry advertising.

First, a little background on golfers and golf travel. Golfers spend a lot of money supporting their habit. We buy $400 drivers and travel great distances to play exceptional golf courses. But we’re not stupid. We shop around just like anyone else and make darn sure we’re getting the best experience possible when booking a trip.

travel industry advertising agency

Wales definitely has some pretty pictures.

For Americans, a trip to Wales is a tough sell. Let’s face it… Scotland, the Holy Land of golf, is right next door and Ireland is just a ferry ride away. Wales isn’t even on our radar.

Here’s another important fact the Welch tourism office didn’t consider: Golfers have a phobic aversion to certain numbers. We hate 6s and 7s! An 8 on the scorecard is known as a snowman, and is more dreaded than an STD. Nines and 10’s aren’t even spoken of, much less, featured prominently in the headline of an ad.

Every industry has its advertising conventions — required elements, if you will. In golf advertising it’s the pretty picture. Just show the beauty shot of the course with sunlight streaming across the fairway. It’s the price of admission in the category… if you don’t have good photography, don’t even play.

So it’s not surprising that all golf travel ads look alike. The “creative” part of the assignment usually goes like this: “Just figure out where we should run this pretty picture of our golf course.” There’s no story telling. No relevant message that’ll connect with anyone on an emotional level. And there’s very little differentiation.

Same goes for travel industry advertising in general. It’s almost always just a pretty picture and a few throw-away words.

how to create a great golf adWhich brings us to the ad in question. It was a full page in Golf Digest, retail value; $88,000. There’s a mediocre aerial photo of a costal golf course on a dramatic spit of land, with a big headline that reads:

6,7,5,6,7,7,9,7,5,6,6,7,8,6,7,8,5, but happy.

Huh???? That’s the most blatantly false headline I’ve ever seen in travel industry marketing. There’s no way a traveling golfer is going to be happy with a scorecard like that. And the cliché-ridden body copy does little to relive my discomfort with the whole idea:

“We all get those days. Where you seriously consider packing it all in and taking up darts or something. But even a bad round here has its positives. Stunning championship courses. Reasonable green fees. No pretentious nonsense. A good walk through our beautiful countryside. And best of all, in Wales tomorrow’s always another day.”

Tomorrow’s also a fine day to fire your copywriter.

Apparently, the message is: Travel all the way to Wales and magically, somehow, you’ll feel good about all those 7s and 8s and 9s on the scorecard. Talk about a disconnect! 7s 8s and 9s are even more depressing at a seaside course in Wales than they are back home. It’s every golfer’s worst nightmare… travel 6,000 miles to an epic destination and then stink up the place.

Been there, done that. (Okay not that bad, but bad enough to leave a scar.)

how to avoid bad advertising in the golf industrySo here you have an ad that doesn’t just lie flat on the page, unnoticed and ineffective. It screams bad experience! It conjures up memories that are emotionally scarring to me, and now I associate Wales with that negative experience.

Ouch.

You won’t convince golfers that a terrible round will be more palatable in Wales, and you shouldn’t even try. It’s an unbelievable, irrelevant message that misses the target audience by a mile. (People who shoot 118 don’t travel to obscure oversees destinations to play golf. They ride busses from one tourist trap to the next.)

But let’s be fair. The Wales Tourism Board isn’t the only organization that misses the mark when it comes to strategic message development. Most companies have at least of half-dozen messages they could use for their advertising. The problem is, they’ve never spent the time to figure out which of the six will really resonate.

If you’re faced with that message development problem, here are some guidelines that’ll help:

1. Assess each possible message on a credibility scale. Turn the BS meter to full volume and honestly decide which statements are believable and which ones sound like marketing hype?

2. Identify the hottest pain point for your best customers, and work from there. Big numbers are definitely a pain point for golfers. Unfortunately, Wales can’t promise to solve that problem.

3. Identify the messages that are in line with your core brand concept and move those to the top of the list. Don’t deviate.

golf industry marketing and advertising4. Beware of plagiarism. If your message sounds a lot like your competitor’s message, throw it out. In that Golf Digest Ad, Wales uses the tagline “Golf as it should be.” A blatant rip-off of the phrase coined by Bandon Dunes Golf Resort: “Golf as it was meant to be.”

5. Get some professional help. You’re too close to it to make sound judgment on what will resonate, and what won’t. Time after time, our market research proves this point. Travel industry advertising has the potential to be truly great. Don’t waste that opportunity by running mediocre ads.

6. Know your market and subject. Do the research. It’s pretty obvious that whoever did the ad for Wales had no experience with, or knowledge of, golf industry advertising.

Would you like to learn more about how to develop a message that will really resonate with your target audience? Read this post.

Want to see some of travel industry advertising I’ve done? Click here.