Quantifying the Long-Term Impact of the Tiger Woods Mess

Bad News for Brand Equity: The Web Never Forgets

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
Sponsors are starting to exit or limit their relationships with Tiger Woods. First it was Gatorade before the scandal, then, over the weekend, Gillette and Accenture. But are they really out of the rough?

Many assumed this might just blow over. Even golf legend Jack Nicklaus was quoted suggesting that time will heal all wounds and that the public will eventually forget the scandal. Still others have suggested that a few more green jackets and mega-trophies will change the subject.

But it's just not that simple anymore. When bad news strikes, the web never forgets -- and this is a point sponsors undoubtedly weighed in their stay or run for the hills deliberation.

Yes, there was once a time when most conversation and word of mouth concentrated around the offline water cooler, but in this case the vast quantity of dialogue and conversation nested itself on the very sticky -- dare I say, permanent -- web. The web, fortified by social media and the power of search, brings a latency that's difficult if not impossible to shake.

Even a modest brand stumble can translate into an almost indelible digital trail that acts like a perpetual "Reminder-gram." In this case, we've had a near free-fall, which means sponsors such as Accenture -- who framed Tiger Woods in airport walkways as precise, deliberate, and unassailably consistent -- would have had to contend with the world's biggest negative content reservoir while hoping (and praying) their messages will break through or recover with the passage of time. Just to put this in perspective, Google reports more than 22 million pieces of indexed content against the query "Tiger Woods Accident."

In my book, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000" (Doubleday), I write extensively about the media aspect of online conversation. Terms like "social media" and "consumer generated media" and "earned media" fit the bill because the content consumers create, co-create, mash-up and share acts like media. Far from hiding under a rock, it frequently sits right smack in the center of the purchase funnel, either moving consumers toward or away from brands. Our intentions and curiosity invariably meet the conversation.

Apple Computer benefits in huge ways from this because love notes from happy customers show up wherever you go on the web, especially via search, precipitating awareness, trial and purchase intent. Unilever's Dove brand benefits whenever someone types in the word "beauty" into Google, as the famous Dove "Evolution" spot shows up prominently in organic search results. Nationwide still benefits from millions of free media impressions across the web because of an outrageously talk-worthy Super Bowl spot three years ago that featured Kevin Federline.

This isn't rocket science. This is category management 101. Shelf space matters.

Quantifying Tiger Wood's digital trail
Which brings us back to Tiger. Even if the fire hydrant of news and gossip miraculously stopped, the negative "archived" media barrage would keep storming through, complicating life for sponsors like a game of Whack-a-Mole. Just consider Google search results against the general query "Tiger Woods." In less than two weeks, the shelf-space has shifted from 95% favorable to nearly 50% hostile. For Microsoft's Bing and Yahoo Search, negative results hover around 30%. Then there's Wikipedia, which now has nearly 500 words dedicated to "Car Accident & Alleged Affairs." That's a big deal, as Tiger Woods' Wikipedia entry hugs the top of the fold across all the major search engines against search queries.

Just to put this in perspective, you can't even search the ostensibly benign term "golf club" without being reminded about this incident. Indeed, a long tail of general queries on the web -- golf tournament, affair, cheating, accident -- all funnel to the issue to varying degrees. The only beneficiary, for all we know, might just be the Cadillac Escalade, which, while taking a hit (pun intended) on the accident, is getting unprecedented levels of free publicity -- more simply, a free ride -- from the web's latency effect.

Curiously, even though Accenture is cutting the relationship, the de facto advertising via search will continue for some time. Nearly a third of all front-page search results against the term "Accenture" remind the world of the Tiger Woods controversy. Ditto for Gillette. That Google now parades real-time Twitter updates (mostly hostile, many outrageous) above the fold in search queries ups the headache factor for brands that would rather make a clean cut and move on.

Search engines, of course, represent the online equivalent of the TV networks. I haven't even started talking about blog or Twitter search -- all of which uniquely appeal to influencers and, in this instance, is like a feeding frenzy on steroids. (Are we sure we want to ditch "As the World Turns"?)

So if we marry the search-heavy database of curiosity with millions of hostile or salacious archived comments, you've got a branding proposition that has to work extra hard to break through. For all we know, Tiger Woods may need to double the green jackets and golf trophies -- or win several Nobel prizes, and perhaps create world peace -- to create the buzz and conversation to compete with the current mountain of conversational warts.

It's hard to understate the intensity or talk-worthiness of the archived negatives. Last week, my own compulsive curiosity prompted me to run a couple Nielsen Brand Association Maps drawn from a six-figure sample of commentary about Tiger Woods. In the "pre" period, the brand appears exactly as a sponsor would hope and presume: consistent, on equity, predictable, golf-centered, and free of controversy. The "post" period tells a completely different story, and again, it's a story that we can't easily assume will dissipate with the passage of time thanks to the web's penchant for archiving and rewarding content based on link-love.

At the end of the day, fair or not, our brand equity is inseparable from the volume and composition of our search results. And the web rarely, if ever, forgets.

Now, there's the rub for sponsors!

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.
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