What's Next for the Tiger Woods Brand?

Viewpoint: Advice for the Golfer and Sponsors as He Looks to Regain Former Mastery

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John Sweeney
John Sweeney
Tiger Woods has won 71 official PGA tournaments including 14 of golf's major events. He has won the PGA Player of the Year a record 10 times. All of which makes his performance this year all the more surreal. Tiger Woods failed to win an event in 2010 and managed just two finishes in the top 10 of a tournament. He ranked 42nd in the season-long FedEx Cup rankings, an amazing 1,680 points behind the winner. The precipitous drop in his game was caused by a celebrated scandal so bizarre that the New York Post dedicated no less than 20 front-page stories to it. No need to recap all the details because you already know them.

Since I teach courses in both advertising and sports marketing here at UNC, I thought I would share a few notes on the next steps for a clearly troubled brand.

1. The new Tiger Woods Brand begins and ends on the golf course.
There will be no future for the Tiger Woods brand if he does not return to his incredible dominance of the game of golf. It was his extraordinary play that motivated EA Sports to make him the main figure in its video game and Nike to focus on Woods to build its golf division. It was his prodigious talent that generated record TV ratings when he was in contention at a PGA event. There is no remedy for the Tiger Woods image if he becomes just another professional golfer. This is particularly true because golf is now his only path back to popularity.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods
2. The scandal's damage to Tiger Wood's image is breathtaking.
While Woods lost 30% of his income from the scandal, there are other measures that place his brand image in even deeper trouble. His Q-score negatives have surged 160%. The Davie Brown rankings show that Woods has gone from the 11th ranked celebrity that consumers identify with all the way to an astounding 2,365th place. And a Gallup Poll showed his approval rating going from a record high 88% to only 31% recently. While these three simple ratings reflect different times and simplify each research approach, the overall assessment of fundamental damage to his popularity is hard to miss.

It is interesting that brands sensitive to his personal appeal -- like Accenture and AT&T -- moved decisively to drop him. I don't expect any replacements any time soon.

3. The inspirational Tiger Woods brand is permanently demolished.
The reason the golfer captured the imagination of the world had little to do with the actual sport. Tiger Woods was an extraordinary story from his first TV performances, winning the U.S. Amateur Championship. He was a handsome, eloquent young man who seemed unspoiled by his fame. He was an African-American who took over an elite sport and confronted the ghosts of its prior racism with the weapon of extraordinary achievement. He was the devoted son to his parents and -- in the eyes of the public -- he was soon the happily married young father who happened to be the best golfer in the world. There was so much about Tiger to admire in a media landscape of surly, spoiled professional athletes. Yet this inspirational side of Wood's image is now utterly destroyed. I see no way to revive it either, which is unfortunate for him and for the millions of fans he left disappointed.

4. The very idea of celebrity sponsorship has been challenged by Tiger Woods.
Tiger Woods was the No. 5 ranked celebrity, according to Forbes magazine. His pay was $105 million and he ranked No. 6 in press coverage and No. 7 in television/radio coverage. The idea that someone so clearly in the public eye could have pursued a virtual secret life is disturbing both in its corporate irresponsibility and personal recklessness.

The more astounding fact is that Woods managed to live this secret life for years on end. According to interviews, he flew different women to golf courses all over the world. The fact that he was able to successfully hide this lifestyle year after year must give pause to any sponsor looking to associate with a glamorous athlete who theoretically has no personal issues.

If the most visible athlete on the planet was able to manage a wild number of affairs -- including very public appearances in Las Vegas -- and keep it secret, then there's a real question how any potential sponsor can be certain of the personal reputation of an athlete.

5. The new Tiger Woods will appreciate his fans.
Even if Wood's masterful talents return to the golf course, there will need to be a much kinder, much more open player. The new Tiger Woods cannot return to the remote arrogance he displayed in the past. His quest for privacy -- long viewed sympathetically by fans as a desire to be with his family -- will never again be trusted.

Frankly, if Woods really wants to know how to relate to the public, he need look no further than the modern legends of his game. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have enjoyed long and prosperous careers by treating the fans with reverence and the press with respect. These giants of golf history still have some very important lessons to teach their sport's great prodigy in a very troubled time.

John Sweeney, a professor at UNC-CH, directs the Sports Communication Program and heads the advertising sequence at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
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