CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Tiger Woods' "transgressions" have left formerly clean-shaven Gillette with a trio of bad boys as the centerpiece of its global marketing campaign -- and that might actually be a good thing for the Procter & Gamble-owned brand.
Sure, Mr. Woods' embarrassing and widely reported marital-fidelity woes are going to be a punch line for a while. And it hasn't been a particularly good quarter for Mr. Woods' fellow "Gillette Champions" either, seeing as soccer star Thierry Henry achieved global-villain status by using an illegal hand-ball to set up a crucial goal in a World Cup qualifying match last month, and tennis star Roger Federer dented his formerly immaculate reputation with a petulant bout of whining while losing in the U.S. Open finals in September.
Two cheaters and a whiner wouldn't seem to be "the best a man can get," as Gillette's long-running tagline puts it, yet when it comes to golf, soccer and tennis, they remain exactly that. But while it's rare for a major advertiser to cut ties with a top endorser, those endorsers may still come a bit cheaper.
"Advertisers have all the leverage in the world right now, no doubt about it," said Dennis Blake, founder of the athlete-representation and sports-marketing firm Blake Sports Group, Bernardsville, N.J. "When Tiger was negotiating the deals he has right now, he was bulletproof. He was absolutely flawless. I'm not saying he's flawed, but he was absolutely pristine, his image was untarnished, and he could demand the dollars. But sponsors have the leverage now."
David Schwab, VP-managing director of Octagon's celebrity acquisition divison, agreed. "For the entire celebrity area, when issues like this happen, brands and their legal counsel tighten a lot of legal language -- termination, morals and, yes, pricing," said Mr. Schwab, whose Virginia-based firm represents clients from baseball star Randy Johnson to pop group Il Divo. "Not only does it affect Tiger, it affects the entire industry. When celebrities do things that negatively affect a corporate deal, the legal terms typically end up more in the corporation's favor the next time. So if a celebrity is paid $10 as an endorser with no morals clause, the company might come back next time and say 'We'll do it for $5 and a morals clause.'"
One agent who has worked with elite pro athletes for three decades, who asked not to be named, said he'd been involved in many deals when, after an athlete wound up in the news for the wrong reasons, sponsor companies were able to cut payouts or extend deals on more favorable terms. In this climate, with procurement executives clamping down on marketing already, there will be "inevitable" pressure on Mr. Woods. "Look, the marketing guys may not want to have that conversation, but the accountants will," he said.
Of course, some might argue that any sort of post-transgressions discount on Mr. Woods and company isn't a bargain for Gillette if Mr. Woods is, in fact, worth less as an endorser because of his travails. But sponsorship experts say history suggests that's highly unlikely. "The parallel with Tiger is always Michael Jordan, who also had his share of extramarital issues, and also gambling problems," said Jim Andrews, senior VP at sponsorship firm IEG. "His deals were all performance-related, so you didn't necessarily have to like him or think he was a good guy for it to work. "Tiger's the same way in that he's not marketing around a message of wholesomeness."
Some even argue that the scandal has solved Tiger's one flaw as an endorser: his robotic consistency and demeanor. "If anything [Mr. Woods] is the one Gillette should put in front of the pack and say, 'Now we have a real personality,'" said Dean Crutchfield, chief engagement officer at branding agency Method. "In fact, 'The best a man can get' just got real. ... That's something they can capitalize on and celebrate: real people doing real things. These are real men leading real lifestyles, lifestyles that many of us would want."
He argued that, if the company is going to make changes to its endorser roster in the wake of recent events, it ought to cut Mr. Federer, the happily married father of newborn twins whose only public sin was whining. "This is not Johnson's baby powder," Mr. Crutchfield said. "It's a man's product and these guys are men showing their real personal selves. Federer in fact is showing himself as sort of a wimp."
It does not appear, however, that Gillette is going to cut ties with any of its "champions," who the brand has used to promote its Gillette Fusion shaving system since 2007. The global campaign has propelled Fusion to billion-dollar brand status, but it hasn't grown fast enough to offset declines elsewhere in Gillette's shaving portfolio, such as Fusion's predecessor, Mach 3.
Fusion cartridge purchases haven't quite been what P&G had hoped for Fusion, because some men didn't see enough difference between Fusion and Mach 3 products to justify the increased price, and also because shaving is less frequent these days due to rising unemployment and the new trendy status of beards. In response, Gillette has been focusing less in the past year on the Gillette Champions and more on ads comparing Fusion favorably to its own Mach 3 products. Regardless, the company says it has no intention of changing the campaign for that reason -- or because of Mr. Woods' or Mr. Henry's recent troubles. Asked whether the company could still credibly claim its endorsers represented "the best a man can get," a Gillette spokesman said it could. "The Gillette Champions are still acknowledged amongst best sportsmen in the world," a spokesman said in a statement. "They are also human beings and make mistakes. By acknowledging and learning from their mistakes, we hope they will become even better, both in the game and beyond."
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Contributing: Michael Bush, Jack Neff