Ely's had a brilliant career selling fashion for Burlington Industries, Callaway wines and now the famous Big Bertha golf clubs bearing his name. But he says "marketing is second" to being "product creators."
He came from Callaway headquarters in Carlsbad, Calif., to his native Georgia the other day to speak to a group of business press publishers at the annual American Business Press spring meeting, and he said he was in a "quandary" about advertising.
On the one hand, he worked with "outstanding geniuses" such as Bill Bernbach at Burlington "and dealt with him four or five times a week." He also worked with John Fairchild, who he says had the ability to produce newspapers that were "pleasingly different"-just like he tries to do with his own products. And Ely had some nice words about our own columnist Jim Brady.
When he first started Callaway Golf, Ely did little advertising because his clubs were "so superior" that word of mouth was all that was needed to push sales.
Ely's quandary comes because he says "if you spend enough money on advertising you can have a financial success, even if the product might kill people who use it, and I'm referring to Marlboro cigarettes." He said Marlboro's success is built "not on the product but effective advertising.
"I took the opposite approach. The game itself or the product is addictive, but it won't kill you. Eighty percent feel like they're going to die, but they keep coming back," Ely quipped. "I always wanted to be in a business that's addictive and legal."
Most companies, he said, "don't really believe they can make a better product"-so they concentrate on clever advertising. "But the problem is that the ads are so attractive, funny and clever that a great many readers focus their brain power on how funny the ad is rather than who the advertiser is.
"That is so simple that most people in business don't do it," Ely told the publishers. "The intrinsic merit of the product is far more important to you as publishers and to your advertisers than any degree of advertising creativity."
Ely said he had some regrets about not signing up Tiger Woods to endorse his products. Nike chief "Phil Knight got to him first, but we're not in apparel and shoes, so it made a lot of sense for Nike to use him."
But, he hinted, there still might be some way for Callaway to "capitalize on the Tiger Woods phenomenon without paying money. I'm not going to tell you today. Maybe you'll be interested in watching the news of golf in the next couple of months."
What could Ely have in mind? Restaurant and computer entrepreneur Michael Scoby thinks that Callaway could bring out a line of clubs with Tiger stripes on the shafts and a tiger paw for a head, but Bill Morrow, our own exec VP, reminded me that somebody tried to bring out a line of potties called "Here's Johnny" when Johnny Carson was in his heyday and was blocked from doing so. Can Tiger Woods now lay claim to any and all likenesses of tigers or the colors of tigers? Maybe not for any product, but how about for golf-related products?
Ely Callaway is one smart marketing man-er, product man-so it will be worth watching what he has up his sleeve. Callaway golf balls with orange and black stripes?
Now that Tiger Woods is getting more than $20 million from American Express (to add to his Nike and American Brands' Titleist booty), he and his handlers can afford to hire a bevy of high-priced lawyers to block anybody trying to cash in on his popularity.
"I plan to do more" is the American Express line for Tiger. But then so does Ely.