Arnold Palmer Takes a Swing at Positioning His Brand for Future

At 82, Golfing Great Hopes to Stir Retro Fever With Clothing Line to Evoke Romance of Decades Past

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Arnold Palmer did not invent sports marketing. But he nearly perfected it, amassing a global empire of licensing deals and endorsements that seems just as relevant today as it was when he first began building it back in the 1950s. Now the 82-year-old golfing legend is out to make sure his dynasty outlasts him.

Arnold Palmer Enterprises, which houses marketing ventures from wine to sunscreen, is in the midst of a branding review with the aim of reaching a generation of fans who weren't even born when he was racking up tour wins. "We're at a crucial point in Mr. Palmer's career," said Cori Britt, VP-Arnold Palmer Enterprises. "We're looking forward to ensuring the Arnold Palmer brand is positioned for success 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now." 

As it looks to the future, the group is culling nonstrategic licenses while seeking out new ones that dig deeper into Mr. Palmer's past, evoking a 1960s-era younger, stronger Arnie in hopes of capitalizing on the retro fever captured by the likes of the hit TV show "Mad Men." Among the projects in the pipeline are a new clothing line featuring styles Mr. Palmer wore decades ago that seek to recapture the spirit that this year vaulted him onto GQ magazine's list of "The 25 Coolest Athletes of All Time ." Mr. Palmer, GQ said, "marshaled his own army by uniting golf with charisma at a moment when the sport's most-popular fan was President Eisenhower."

Drink up: Line of beverages has a retro look.
Drink up: Line of beverages has a retro look.
And he remains a goldmine even at a golden age. Mr. Palmer, who retired from competitive golf in 2006, had $36 million in earnings last year, ranking him No. 3 on Golf Digest's "all-encompassing money list," which includes on-course and off-course revenue such as endorsement and licensing fees. He was superseded by only two active players: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. 

"The fact that he's still earning $36 million a year is a real testament to the power of his brand," said Jim Andrews, senior VP at IEG, a sponsorship, research and consulting firm. Indeed, Mr. Palmer's appeal as measured by the Marketing Arm's Davie Brown Index -- which quantifies influence, awareness and other celebrity attributes -- is more than double that of Luke Donald, today's No. 1 PGA Tour player, according to the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index.

The branding review, run by New Jersey-based brand-strategy firm Trajectory, is expected to be completed by the end of the year and was launched to ensure Arnold Palmer Enterprises has consistency across its products, while positioning it to move into new categories. In truth, the process began several years ago, when the group took a hard look at its deals and began paring back, eliminating more fringe licensing arrangements for items such as Christmas ornaments and card games that Mr. Britt described as "knick-knacky items that really don't have the reach." And while it sheds those partnerships, Mr. Palmer's organization is charging harder into higher-profile categories such as beverages and clothing.

His classic cool look will be showcased in a retro clothing line called "Arnie," set to launch in February. Three upscale collections will feature styles he wore in the "50s (small collars and short plackets), "60s (wider-legged pants and collars) and "70s (more subdued colors). Mr. Palmer's company was "looking for a young, fresh brand" that would "make it more relevant to the game and to the younger demographic that is playing the game," said Geoff Tait, co-founder of Quagmire Golf, the Toronto-based clothing company handling the line.

Mr. Tait, 32, went to work right away -- starting with a trip to one of Mr. Palmer's homes in Latrobe, Pa., the town where he was born. Mr. Palmer apparently saves almost everything, and Mr. Tait poured through it all, including closets of old clothes and a barn "full of every shoe he's ever worn, every golf club he's ever played with," Mr. Tait said. "I went through and I literally took home a couple of his cardigans that he wore back in the day, some pants, some old shirts -- just to get inspired by the style."

Mr. Palmer is also growing his partnership with Arizona Beverages, which is expanding distribution of its recently launched Arnold Palmer Hard Half & Half, a spiked version of the lemonade-tea mixture the golfer made famous long ago. Arizona, which markets Hard though affiliate Hornell Brewing Co., plans to grow distribution to 21 states from five, following the success of the 10-year-old nonalcoholic Half & Half, which has developed a strong base of young consumers.

"His status as "The King' gives him a charisma that is hard for a young demographic to resist, even if they have never seen him play professionally," said Arizona spokeswoman Jackie Harrigan.

He's such a big draw that more than 100 fans young and old recently traveled from 26 states to hear him talk at a United States Golf Association event in Orlando, Fla., in which he relayed old golfing tales, Golfweek magazine reported in January.

Mr. Palmer's marketing machine first gained steam in 1960, when he paired with agent Mark McCormack, who went on to found legendary sports agency IMG. (Mr. McCormack died in 2003, but Mr. Palmer remains with IMG.) "A brilliant part of Mark's marketing strategy was never to tie my endorsement of a product to how I was faring on the gold course," Mr. Palmer says on his website. "His aim was never to position me as a "winner' because there always comes a day when a winner no longer wins."

Rather, the strategy touted Mr. Palmer's endurance, reliability and integrity. And years later, Mr. Palmer is still finding marketing success based on that philosophy -- along with lucking into the fact that the "60s are in.

"He's able to take advantage of a trend because he's from an era that 's hot again," Mr. Andrews said, but hastened to add that he "never really went away. ... He's had this kind of steady presence for people of all ages."

The Arnold File

Born: 1929, Latrobe, Pa.

PGA Tour Wins: 62

First Professional Win: 1955 Canadian Open

Last Professional Win: 1988 Crestar Classic, Champions (senior) Tour

Businesses: Arnold Palmer Enterprises (endorsements, licensing); Bay Hill Club and Lodge (Orlando resort and golf course); Latrobe Country Club (Pa.); Arnold Palmer Design Co. (golf courses); Arnold Palmer's Restaurant (La Quinta, Ca.); Arnold Palmer Motors (car dealership, Latrobe); Arnold Palmer Golf Tournament Services (leaderboards, course set-up)

Major Endorsements: Callaway Golf, Cessna, Golf Channel, E-Z-Go Golf Carts, Golf Digest, Ketel One Vodka, Rolex

Major U.S.-licensed products*: Arizona Half & Half tea/lemonade beverage, wine, golfing headgear, sunscreen, Anutra grain, Arnold Palmer Golf Management (course operator)

Oversea-licensed products*: Men's, women's and kids' apparel and underwear (Japan); bedding (China); bags and luggage (Singapore); kitchen- and tableware (South Korea); clothing (Sweden)
*Partial list

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