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8 marketing strategy in the golf equipment business

Golf industry marketing strategy – Parity vs “kickassery”

Let me tell you a story that illustrates the shortcomings of the typical golf industry marketing strategy…

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 of which were rational:

• It’s been 8 years since I purchased a new club. I was due. I deserved it.

• A client of mine in the golf industry couldn’t shut up about this club. And he gave me a deal.

• I couldn’t find any consistency with my old, Adams driver.

• It was market research for this article.

It had nothing to do with distance. In fact, it had nothing to do with logic, or reason or need at all. People don’t buy clubs for logical reasons, any more than they join a country club for logical reasons. It’s purely emotional. 

First we decide, then we rationalize the decision with logic and reason. Gut then head.

 

Which brings me to the topic at hand: Golf industry marketing strategy has always revolved around logical lists of features and frequent product launches. And every launch promises a few more yards.

But these days, only the most wonky sales reps don’t 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? When you have product parity?

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.

The 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. But that’s not the case in golf.

In the golf industry, product parity has 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. 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 wised 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.”

With 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.

marketing strategy in the golf equipment business

No matter what they do for R&D, Wilson and all the other golf club brands 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. 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 Adidas 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 in 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,  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.

marketing strategy in the golf equipment business

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.

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.

If you’re in the golf business, and you want to build a brand that’s highly differentiated, and tremendously profitable, give us a call.

 

Want to learn more about disruption as a marketing discipline? Try THIS POST.  

Need help building your golf brand? E-mail me directly: JohnF@BNBranding.com

The lingering effects of your brand identity design – good or bad

Never underestimate the lingering power of brand identity design in the golf business. Decades after you’ve completed that all-important-yet-highly-undervalued project, your brand identity will either be a tremendous asset to your business, or an anchor that continually drags you down.

Like the good, the bad and the ugly.

And it’s not subjective! Ugly designs just don’t sell well, in any form. So just look at the numbers; If your branded merchandise sales are flat, and if inventory turn is slow, you should take a serious look at the design of your brand identity.

At the very least, a good design firm can provide a dramatic, before-and-after improvement to the aesthetic appeal of your brand identity. But it’s not just about looking good. It’s about selling more, building goodwill, and gaining long-term brand loyalty. If your logo looks like crap on a hat, that’s going to be really hard.

I see that problem a lot in the golf business.

outstanding golf course brand identity design - BN Branding

Our brand identity design for golf courses. Client: Malibu Golf Club.

For many golf operations branded merchandise represents a nice annual revenue stream for the proshop. If you’re Pebble Beach, Augusta National, or Bandon Dunes you’re going to sell a lot of branded hats, shirts and golf towels simply for the souvenir value. Even if the design work is less than stellar.

But if you’re one of 120 courses in Palm Springs or Mrytle Beach fighting for every last penny of revenues, your brand identity design better look downright snazzy. The design alone is what differentiates you from the pack and moves product off the shelves.

That’s where Design, with a Capital D, can provide a tremendous competitive advantage. Or not!

Here’s what management guru Tom Peters has to say about design. (He’s the only management guru who writes a lot about design. If you only read one business book in your life, read “ReImagine”)

“Most people think of design as a patina. A finishing-off process of prettifying things. But in great companies like Apple and Sony, design sensibility is the antithesis of that.  It’s the soul that drives the enterprise.”

If you’re going to pay Tom Fazio or Ben Crenshaw millions of dollars to design your golf course, you better spend a proportionate amount on your brand identity. Your identity design should be as beautiful as the golf course. It should reflect the design aesthetic of the architect as well as the broader, brand concept behind the project.

The objective of branded merchandise is not just to make a buck. It’s also about pride, and loyalty, and showing off…

When your customers or members go elsewhere to play golf you want them proudly displaying YOUR merchandise. So brand identity design, when done well, turns customers into walking billboards.

brand identity design in the golf industry

Unfortunately,  a big brown blob for a logo is not what people want to wear around. Doesn’t matter what fancy brand of shirt you put it on, it still looks like a dollup of dog doo. No one wants that on their hat, or even on a golf ball.

The lingering effect of an ugly logo is dismal-looking sales data and very little exposure beyond the gates of your own golf course.

Every golf course has trees, so a tree logo is not going to differentiate your course. And yet trees are a dime a dozen in golf course logos. A tree is the second-most overused item in golf course brand identity work. (Two golf clubs crossed is the first!)

Here are some more examples of bad brand identity design for golf courses:

Many graphic designers are afraid to question the wisdom of a client’s instructions to “just make us a tree logo.” So they spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to execute the idea of a tree in a simple, pleasing graphic style. Some of the more imaginative designers will try an impressionistic approach, and end up with a jumbled mess like this brainy thing:

 

golf industry brand identity design

 

But most just try to draw a very real tree. The harder they work on the illustration — more literal they get with your logo —  the worse it gets:

 

golf course logos - BN Branding

And, of course, make it green!

 

bad examples of brand identity design in the golf industry

 

When you see this juniper tree on a shirt, you’d swear an ink pen blew up in the front pocket:

 

Brand identity design in the golf industry - bad example

 

This moss-covered oak tree appears to be bleeding. Or is it a Rorschach ink blot test?  I’m not sure. Every year that this logo remains on the pro shop shelves means the course is leaving money on the table.

brand identity design in the golf industry - bad example

 

Bottom line: Unless you’re Cypress Point, don’t use a tree as your logo. Even if the name of your golf course is the name of a tree, there are other, more creative solutions to explore.

If you buy a logo from Fiver you’ll only get the most literal, no-brainer ideas.  (Like that oak tree above.) Low cost, foreign designers will not spend time getting to know your market or your brand, much less your industry and your operational advantages. They won’t understand how the logo has to appear on a logo or a ball marker. They won’t appreciate the nuances of your golf course, or the game, for that matter.

So that low-cost logo’s not going to save you money. In fact, it’ll actually cost you money every year in the form of lost sales, lost advertising opportunities, and overwhelming apathy among your membership. It’s like negative ROI of 10x or 100x. But don’t quote me on that. Long term, it could be much worse. (Read about one worst-case scenario.) 

 

Your brand identity design goes beyond the logo. It’s words too. Ideas. And a story.

A long time ago when I first moved to Bend, Oregon I was tasked to do some advertising for a local golf course with the unfortunate name, “Pine Meadows.”

I said no way.

brand identity design for golf courses“We’re not spending a dime of their money on advertising until we convince them to change the name. It sounds like a cemetery or a trailer park. Besides, there are a 27 golf courses across the country called Pine Meadows. There’s no way they could trademark that.”

Thankfully, the new owners were open-minded. Even though they didn’t fully grasp how bad Pine Meadows really was, they approved an additional budget for naming. (We have a great process for that)

So we dug in. We researched the history, geography and geology of the area. The course overlooks the Deschutes river, so that was a source of inspiration. We looked into the local flora and fauna, and even tribal legends from the earliest inhabitants.

The name I came up with is, to this day, one of the most memorable golf course brand names in the country:  Widgi Creek.  Three syllables. Starts with a whisper and ends in a hard K sound.

No, there’s no creek by that name.

However there were some petroglyphs not far from the site. And there always were plenty of elk meandering through the golf course. Thus, the brand identity design by Shelly Walters.

This name and identity has a great story built into it. Everyone wants to know where it came from and what it means. In other words, it’s engaging!

No one ever asked, “what’s the story with Pine Meadows?”  Snoozer names = snoozer sales.

Once the name and identity were complete we did print, radio and television advertising that propelled the course to #1 in the market.

Widgi Creek is not the best golf course in Central Oregon… The layout is tricky and frighteningly tight. The green complexes are no fun. But that doesn’t matter. Golfers are quick to forget how poorly they putted or how many trees they hit.

But no one forgets the name Widgi Creek.

 

 

Obviously, it takes a lot to keep a golf course running profitably year after year, and merchandise sales are just a tiny part of the equation. You can’t put lipstick on a pig, so if the condition of the course is horrendous, no amount of design work is going to help.

However, an engaging brand identity makes everything a little bit easier. Here’s what you can expect from the lingering effect of well-conceived, well-executed brand identity design in the golf industry:

• Higher margins and faster turns on all branded merchandise the proshop.

• Tee sheets booked solid, even in the shoulder seasons. A healthy mix of tourist rounds and local’s rounds.

• Higher-end clientele, which translates to more revenue per round.

• Higher percieved value of every round played.

• Better Google reviews and local word-of-mouth.

• A healthy mix of young and old, women and men. Millennials are more design savvy than 70-year-olds.

• Better top-of-mind brand awareness even in crowded golf markets. Almost every year Widgi Creek gets voted “Best Golf Course” by a local paper. I know people who hate that golf course, but still wear the hat all over the place.

If your branded merchandise has been moving slower and slower, give us a call. It’s probably a design problem. Schedule a meeting with me through Calendly.

If your brand identity dates back to the Ben Hogan era, it’s probably time to think about a rebranding project. You’ll never know how much you’ve been losing until you get your brand identity aligned with the modern golf market.

Times are changing. There’s music and hoodies and mobile apps all over the golf course. Do you want to look like your grandpa’s niblick? Or do you want to look this good?