NEW YORK: Tiger Woods could stand to lose millions in endorsement dollars, as allegations of multiple infidelities continue to pile up and tarnish his once pristine brand image.
Until just a few weeks ago, most PR pros considered the golf star to have the best brand reputation among pro athletes. “He was the most sought after spokesperson in the country. He was viewed as a fierce competitor and an upstanding guy—a good husband and father. That all goes into an athlete's overall brand, not just what they do on the field,” said John Maroon, president of Maroon PR, an agency which specializes in sports and entertainment PR based in Marriottsville, MD. “The scandal is chipping away at his formerly well-respected brand, and that is going to be tough for him to fully recover from.”
So far, Woods has not been officially dropped by any of his sponsors, which include Nike, Tag Heuer and Gillette. Gatorade did announce it was discontinuing Gatorade Tiger Focus, but that news was first reported in the November 25 issue of Beverage Digest, which was published before the allegations of Woods' extramarital affairs were made public. On Tuesday, Gatorade issued a statement that read: “As reported last month, 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.” When PRWeek asked Jennifer Schmit, senior manager, Gatorade PR at PepsiCo, to clarify whether or not Tiger was still a pitchman for Gatorade, she responded via e-mail by saying only, “We hope to share more about our 2010 plans soon.”
A new report says that Procter & Gamble's Gillette, too, is standing by Tiger - for now.
Clearly, sponsors are taking a wait-and-see approach. But Michael Kempner, president and CEO of MWW Group and chairman of Amplify Sports and Entertainment, a sports consulting and sponsorship firm, says the danger for Woods' sponsors is that unlike with other celebrity scandals, the story just seems to be getting more and more salacious by the day—particularly since Woods, himself, refuses to address it. “I would tell brands to be extremely cautious, because there appears to be more to come and no one knows where this story ends,” Kempner told PRWeek. “That said, he is still the best golfer in the world and in many ways he is the reason why there is so much money tied to golf. But only brands that are going to target his new core demographic—hardcore golf fans—should be the ones even considering staying with him.”
In fact, Kempner sees an opportunity for the brand that first publicly breaks from Woods, whether it means opting out of the contract (via a morality clause) or simply just not using him anymore and letting the contract expire. “This story isn't just about infidelity. He is humiliating his wife and family, and his behavior has been poor on so many levels,” says Kempner. “This goes beyond your run-of-the-mill infidelity. The real opportunity is for the brand that stands up and says, ‘Not us.'”
Those sponsors that want to stick it out with Woods will undoubtedly be looking at ways to renegotiate their endorsement deals, including around compensation, particularly if his public popularity takes a sustained hit, said Maroon. “We may see a shift in how Tiger is utilized. He may no longer be [fronting] ad campaigns, at least in the near term.”
Reputation management pros believes Woods can help stop the erosion of his image, but that he'll have to address his admitted “transgressions” beyond a carefully-worded statement, which he posted on his personal Web site. “Right now, he has neighbors speaking about him, the highway patrol speaking about him, all these various girlfriends speaking about him—everyone is talking about Tiger except for Tiger,” said Michael Gordon, principal of New York-based Group Gordon Strategic Communications, which has managed crises for high-profile sports, business and political figures. “As a result, the story is controlling him. He needs to come forward, tell his story and just apologize to his family and fans.”
And he doesn't necessarily have to bare his soul to, say, Oprah or Larry King. Instead, a broadcaster like ESPN or the Golf Channel would allow Woods to address the issue without having to go into the sordid details, said Maroon, because those properties are interested in the health of the sport, which Tiger is such an important part of. “There are a lot of ‘friendlies' out there for Woods like the Golf Channel where he could say ‘I want to sit down with someone I like and trust'. It's a way to control the message without baring his soul,” said Maroon. “That interview would be picked up internationally, and people would say, ‘OK, enough, we've heard from him.' And generally when people talk about scandalous issues that gives the public and media an opportunity to move forward and get onto the next [scandal].”