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Tiger Woods, one of the world’s most famous and popular athletes, has seen his profile raised in a way that could soon reduce his power as a marketing force — or have little impact at all.
Marketing experts were divided over whether Woods’ image has been sullied by his desire for privacy and refusal to speak with police after the golf great’s single-car accident early Friday morning outside his mansion in Orlando, Fla.; rumors of discord with his wife, Elin Nordegren, and alleged affairs.
But if Woods limits his comments to brief posts at tigerwoods.com, his official Web site, the odds of his persona being shaken will grow quickly, marketing experts said. Unlike many athletes who have been under media siege, including Los Angeles Lakers hotshot Kobe Bryant, Woods isn’t accused of a crime. Bryant lost marketing deals with companies such as McDonald’s even before he was tried on a sexual assault charge for which he was subsequently acquitted.
In the meantime, the aura of mystery is not making Woods’ star shine any brighter.
“Crisis communication is all about telling people what happened and letting it die,” said Richard Laermer, president and chief executive officer of RLM Public Relations. “It’s not supposed to be about hiding from the facts. If he came clean now, it could go away.”
In a posting on his Web site, Woods said, “This is a private matter and I want to keep it that way. Although I understand there is curiosity, the many false, unfounded and malicious rumors that are currently circulating about my family and me are irresponsible.” Woods added: “The only person responsible for the accident is me.”
The Florida Highway Patrol on Tuesday concluded its investigation of the Woods accident by issuing a traffic citation for careless driving to Woods. If Woods is convicted, it could result in a fine of $164 and 4 points on his driver’s license.
Citing injuries from the accident, Woods withdrew from all remaining golf tournaments this season, including his own Chevron World Challenge, starting Thursday in Thousand Oaks, Calif., which raises money for the Tiger Woods Foundation. “I am extremely disappointed that I will not be at my tournament this week,” Woods said on tigerwoods.com, noting he will “return to action” in 2010.
For now, one of Woods’ most visible sponsors, Nike Golf, is standing by him. “Tiger and his family have Nike’s full support,” the apparel and footwear giant said. “We respect Tiger’s request for privacy and our thoughts are with Tiger and his family at this time.” Nike Golf spokeswoman Beth Gast declined further comment.
In addition to Nike Golf, Woods’ roster of sponsors includes LVMH watch and jewelry brand Tag Heuer, Titelist, AT&T, Accenture, Electronic Arts Sports (“Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf”), Gatorade Tiger and NetJets.
The 33-year-old has a net worth estimated at $500 million, according to the 2009 edition of “The Forbes 400,” which predicted Woods’ wealth would hit $1 billion by 2012. That would make him the first pro athlete to reach that threshold. His net worth includes “appearance fees, endorsement deals, real estate projects and prize money.”
Although Woods, who has two children, guards his privacy, he is open about his fund-raising efforts and his relationship with his late father, and has been widely seen in ad campaigns, leading Laermer to characterize the athlete’s current stance as “pick-and-choose privacy.”
It’s an approach that could become awkward for the brands with which Woods is associated. For example, in The Wall Street Journal on Monday, the Accenture consultancy ran a large, four-color ad picturing Woods rooting around in the rough of a golf course with an uncomfortable look on his face beneath the headline: “The road to high performance isn’t always paved.” Some of the ad’s copy read: “We know what it takes to be a Tiger. Tell us how we can help.”
In light of recent events, ads such as Accenture’s “are kind of funny now,” Laermer said. “They can’t run for a while.” Signaling it is staying with Tiger, at this time, Accenture posted on its Web site Tuesday a playful image of Woods sporting golfwear and a club, amid a patch of cacti, beside the headline: “Opportunity isn’t always obvious.”
Although crisis management is based on getting out the facts as quickly as possible, a key question raised by the Woods episode is: Will the public be lenient in its thinking about such an overwhelming favorite?
“It’s not good publicity, but it’s not damaging the Tiger Woods brand,” Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys research consultants. “He’s asked for his privacy and I think people are willing to give it to him.”
Beyond sheer charisma, Woods and his many sponsors have traded on the golfer’s athletic prowess, discipline and sophistication, characteristics that have created a devoted legion of fans. Their loyalty “is some of the highest we’ve ever measured — people are six times more likely to give him the benefit of the doubt than the average brand,” Passikoff said.
Kellogg’s dropped the popular swimmer Michael Phelps as an endorser of Corn Flakes and Frosted Flakes soon after the winner of a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games was photographed allegedly using a bong and marijuana. But after a three-month suspension, he returned to competition in May with marketing partners such as Warnaco Group’s Speedo still in the fold.
What is changing for Woods, though, is the golf great’s image as someone who’s almost perfect, marketing experts observed. “He is perceived to be above speculation about anything bad going on with him,” said Irma Zandl, president of Zandl Group. “This suggests he’s more human.” Still, Zandl projects “It won’t hurt his pocketbook.”
Noting Woods has been “thrown into the mouth of the gossip mill,” futurist Faith Popcorn said the car accident and rumors about his personal life “make him more mortal, more like us.”
“It’s like brain candy,” said Popcorn, chief executive officer of Brain Reserve. “It’s a diversion — are Tiger Woods and his wife getting along? Is Tiger Woods having an affair?”