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Op-Ed: Winning Isn’t Everything – The Tiger Woods Brand

Two op-eds in two days, you say, and it’s not even Super Bowl time? Why not. Here, John Paolini, executive creative director/partner at NYC-based operation Sullivan, which has a notable client list from the looks of it, offers us his take on not only Tiger Tiger Woods Y’all, but the ifs and hows on whether athletes in general can rebuild their brand in the wake of scandal and more.

 

Tiger Woods is back.

Well, sort of. With his first PGA-tour win since 2009 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week, he’s back in the spotlight as a golfer—not a sexting adulterer.

All eyes are on the 37-year-old as he heads to Augusta this Thursday for the Masters. If his streak continues, we wonder if maybe he’ll be the greatest golfer of all time after all—he trails Jack Nicklaus by just four major titles. Could the steel-minded prodigy we used to love win back our hearts with more wins on the course?

Maybe… but probably not. Tiger Woods’s personal brand took a big hit in 2009 when his sex scandal revealed how little we really knew about golf’s biggest star. Scandalized celebrities certainly make comebacks. They repent, they reinvent themselves, and they come back better—and with more valuable brands—than ever. But for several reasons, I don’t think Tiger’s brand will ever fully recover.

The value of an athlete’s brand relies predominantly on performance. People like famous athletes and watch them play because they love the vicarious adventure, battle, and victory. We idolize the most talented sports stars because we want to be like them. If an athlete can perform excellently and consistently, his or her brand will always have value. Just how much value depends on more subjective attributes—such as personality, background, and how hot they look in their underwear.

Scandals will always make headlines, but their damage isn’t always permanent. Kobe Bryant’s philandering and Michael Vick’s dog-fighting weren’t nearly as shocking as Tiger’s secret sex life, because—in a way—their actions didn’t completely contradict their bad-boy brands. Our expectations for Bryant and Vick just weren’t very high. Woods, on the other hand, had built his brand on purity, hard work, and an obsession with perfection. He was a squeaky-clean Stanford grad who loved his family. Tiger’s weaknesses stunned us because we never imagined he had any.

We don’t expect movie stars to be role models either, because their brand stories are so complicated and fragmented by the roles they play—which are more naughty than nice these days. Entertainment celebrities consequently have an easier time recovering from scandal because we assume scandalous behavior is part of their on-screen and off-screen lives.

Athletes, though, always “play” themselves, in the same scene, and we only want to watch them if they’re performing well. We also assume that athletic excellence requires discipline and control off the field. So, as an extremely successful athlete with an unblemished record, Woods was especially vulnerable to a devastating scandal.

It’s also interesting to compare Woods to political celebrities, many of whom have been embroiled in similar exposés. It would seem that many (if not most) men in positions of power have been unfaithful to their wives—in France, it’s practically expected—but Americans are up in arms when their leaders get caught. In some cases, we construe infidelity as confirmation that the politician was rotten all along, especially when his policies have proven ineffective.

Other times, though, we find ourselves forgiving, accepting, and maybe even forgetting the extramarital deviance. Bill Clinton is the perfect example. He found his way back into favor because he didn’t let scandal shake his focus on the “game” (Tiger’s first mistake), and he kept up his innate and undeniable charm. Monica Lewinsky or no Monica Lewinsky, it was just so hard to not like him.

Tiger was the undisputed king of golf, but he doesn’t have any charisma. As dynamic a golfer as he is, he’s always been aloof, and even somewhat boring as a person. If a winning streak gets him out of the gutter, I would advise him to start warming up to fans and to the press. But, truth be told, I have no reason to believe he’ll pull it off.

From a branding perspective, Woods’s audience has significantly narrowed, and his endorsements will reflect that. If he gets his mojo and trophies back, he can count on the loyalty of hardcore golf and sports fans. But Woods has probably lost the support—and trust—of people who didn’t care about golf before he made it exciting fifteen years ago. That’s especially true of women and more morally minded audiences. No matter how well he plays, Woods’s personal brand is now much less elastic, and his endorsements shouldn’t stretch far beyond brands that connote athletic performance.

Stick to Nike, Tiger, but don’t take “just do it” too literally.

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