Accenture severs ties with Tiger Woods

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Management and IT consulting firm Accenture's brand campaign had revolved around golfer Tiger Woods for the past six years. And up until his Nov. 27 car accident, the campaign was widely celebrated as a model use of a celebrity spokesperson in b-to-b marketing.

“In my opinion, that's best in class,” Simon White, head of sponsorship for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at McCann Worldgroup's Momentum Worldwide, told BtoB this summer.

Shoot, we were on the bandwagon, too. In our annual “Best” issue, BtoB gave several awards to Accenture for its Tiger marketing communications efforts. But, as in any celebrity endorsement relationship, Accenture's reliance on Tiger had one potential weakness.

Human frailty.

“Campaigns like this always have an Achilles heel, and the Achilles heel is about what happened here,” said Jim Gregory, CEO of CoreBrand, a branding consultancy, referring to the scandal unfolding in slow motion about Woods' marital infidelity.

On Sunday, Accenture took the extraordinary step of publicly announcing the termination of its sponsorship of Woods. Branding consultants said the public announcement was unusual; generally, corporations sever their ties with endorsers quietly.

Al Ries, chairman of branding consultancy Ries & Ries, had said last week he thought it unlikely that Accenture would drop Woods in the short term. “That would look like they were kicking someone when they're down,” Ries said.

Contacted again after Accenture's announcement, Ries said the move to drop Woods showed an urgency on Accenture's part. "It shows you how big an issue this is with Accenture's management and how frustrated and disgusted they are that they've been associated with exactly the wrong kind of guy for a consulting company," Ries said.

A survey conducted last week by Argyle Executive Forum seems to indicate broad agreement with the move among the marketing community. The survey found that about three in four marketing executives "would cancel, reduce or suspend their business relationship with Tiger Woods, if currently using the professional golfer as a celebrity endorser."

In Accenture's case, the firm had intertwined its identity with Woods more deeply than any other advertiser associated with the golfer, including AT&T, Gillette and Nike.

The golfer had appeared in print, on television, on the company's Web site, on airport posters and even in the firm's recruiting advertising.

Accenture must have thought doubling down on Woods was a pretty good bet. Gregory agreed. “I would have guessed there was a 1% chance of something like this happening with Tiger, but there you go,” he said.

Now, with Woods' in-control image shattered, his brand no longer fits the marketing message Accenture wants to communicate. "His achievements on the golf course have been a powerful metaphor for business success in Accenture's advertising," the company said in the statement. It added, however, that "given the circumstances of the last two weeks, after careful consideration and analysis, the company has determined that he is no longer the right representative for its advertising."

Accenture said it will launch a new advertising campaign in 2010. As of Thursday, Accenture's corporate Web site still featured a photo of Woods standing near a cactus far from the fairway in a desert golf course. The headline was appropriate for the situation: “Opportunity isn't always obvious.”

Ries predicted that Woods will once again be a respected celebrity—once he returns to the golf course and begins winning again. “Celebrities are pretty bulletproof,” Ries said. “Look at Kobe Bryant, look at David Letterman, look at Bill Clinton, look at Martha Stewart. She spent six months in jail, and now she's bigger than ever."

Corporations, however, are notoriously conservative when it comes to their image, and the cognitive dissonance in what Woods' image had become and what Accenture wanted to project was apparently too much for the company. “Every (Accenture) headline is an opportunity for a punchline,” Ries said.

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