Tiger Woods may be reaching a tipping point as a multimillion-dollar marketing juggernaut.

This story first appeared in the December 9, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The golfing great’s negative buzz is soaring and his likability rating is ebbing. Marketers have not televised any Woods commercials in prime time on the five major TV networks or on 19 cable channels (excluding the Golf Channel) since Nov. 29 amid a drumbeat of allegations about extramarital affairs since he crashed his Cadillac Escalade near his Florida home, according to The Nielsen Co.

Woods was also absent from commercials on sports programs last weekend, including NFL games, said Aaron Lewis, communications director at Nielsen. A 30-second spot for Gillette Co., on the Nov. 29 telecast of NBC’s “Football Night in America,” was the last to appear in prime time featuring Woods.

PepsiCo Inc.’s Gatorade is the first brand aligned with Woods to blink. Even as it continued to show full-motion images of the 33-year-old athlete at gatorade.com/tiger/products Tuesday night, the sports nutrition drink company said it was dropping its Gatorade Tiger beverage. It said the decision was made before Woods’ SUV crash.

“We decided several months ago to discontinue Gatorade Tiger Focus, along with some other products, to make room for our planned series of innovative products in 2010,” said Jennifer Schmit, a senior manager in Gatorade public relations.

The churn of the scandal was unabated Tuesday, with reports about more infidelities, Woods’ wife Elin Nordegren buying a house on an island near Stockholm and his mother-in-law, Barbro Holmberg, being rushed from Woods’ home to a Florida hospital with stomach pains, after an early-morning call to 911.

“It will take him a long time to be seen as he once was, as the good guy,” said Richard Laermer, president of RLM Public Relations, a specialist in crisis management. “He’s going to have some sponsorships pulled, and that’s really going to hurt [his marketing persona]. Sponsors will get pressure from groups. In a highly competitive market, brands can’t take risks on a controversial figure.”

According to an online survey of a representative group of 200 U.S. adults last weekend by marketing consultant Millward Brown, bad buzz for Woods has rocketed to a rating of 80, on a scale of 0 to 100, compared with a negative buzz score of just 2 in September, when Millward had first tested an array of celebrities. The average negative buzz for celebrities is 4 percent. His likability skidded to 59 from 69 in September.

These scores are one element in the consultant’s new Cebra (celebrity plus brand) system, which it uses to identify effective endorsers of specific brands, based on three aspects of a celebrity’s image: buzz, likability and familiarity.

“The issue for Tiger is that he has gone from iconic and role-model status to quite questionable status as to what he stands for,” said Ann Green, Millward’s senior vice president, marketing solutions. “Perceptions have been shattered. His negative buzz is one of the highest levels of negative buzz we’ve ever seen.”

And that kind of buzz is hard to shake off “depending on the egregiousness of the behavior and the way in which the individual deals with it,” Green said. “It would appear Tiger Woods’ marketing persona has taken a lasting hit.”

Asked if she anticipates more sponsors will drop Woods, the Millward executive said, “That will start to shake out when the contract renewals kick in….The associations attached to him are increasingly negative.”

Regarding its brand ambassador arrangement with Woods, a spokeswoman for Tag Heuer at the LVMH Watch and Jewelry unit in Springfield, N.J., said, “We are not discussing it. Period. Amen. It is a private matter for the company, for the [brand] ambassador and we don’t comment on private matters.”

Nike, one of Woods’ most visible sponsors, is standing behind its statement last week: “Nike supports Tiger and his family. Our relationship remains unchanged.”

Accenture has been staying with its playful image of Woods on its home page at accenture.com, showing the golfer sporting his Nike golfwear and club, apparently searching for a golf ball amid a patch of cactus, beside a headline associating Woods with Accenture: “Opportunity isn’t always obvious. Explore our featured research and experience.” Accenture declined to comment on its marketing sponsorship of Woods.

Brand Keys Inc. president Robert Passikoff, for one, differed with the doomsayers about Woods’ prospects as an endorser, although he expects him to take a hit when his sponsorship deals come up for renewal.

“The bonds the guy’s got with the public are amazing,” Passikoff said. “It’s a ‘get out of jail free’ card or an ‘I’m not going to buy someone else’s golf balls’ card,” he added, alluding to Woods’ marketing deal with Titleist.

“If you talk about him as a brand — and not as a moral authority figure — it [the allegations] doesn’t matter,” Passikoff said. “He was robotic. Now, he’s human.”

The Woods scandal has helped boost circulation of the two biggest celebrity weeklies. People magazine sold 1.4 million copies of its issue with its headline “Tiger in Trouble,” about 100,000 more than the average. US Weekly sold 900,000 copies, compared with its average of about 850,000, for its issue with the cover line, “Yes, He Cheated.” Us Weekly also reported record traffic on its Web site as readers listened to a voicemail message said to be from Woods to one of his alleged mistresses, Jaimee Grubbs. The voicemail has been downloaded about 3.5 million times.


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