05 November, 2010

Heroes, sponsors and their scandals

Melbourne Herald Sun, Friday November 5, 2010

He was the world’s greatest golfer, winner of 71 PGA tournaments, and once again the saying was proved: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall”. But if you are his sponsor, do you also fall with him?

This question reared up about this time last year when Tiger Woods had his morally fatal Thanksgiving car accident, and all the truth of his gluttonous love life tumbled out. Certainly for AT&T and Gatorade it was indigestible. They dropped their champion like a hot brick.

Others, like Nike and Tag Heuer, decided to brave the storm. So have their brands suffered since?

This is a question every sponsor dreads having to ask. And it seems that if you bask in a hero’s radiant glory, you always risk the fall-out of a fall from grace.

Nike went through it all before, in 2002 when Wayne Carey fell in the mire, where they hung in as they did this year for Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, accused of rapes and gross behaviour.

Initially this year the scandals seemed to have no effect on sales. But then something did: Tiger Woods started to lose, and kept on losing all year long. Suddenly, his clothing sales have started to dip.

Next week he’ll have a chance to redeem himself when he visits Melbourne for this year’s Australian Masters. He’ll need to work hard on it though. Already ticket sales are reported to be soft. Whereas last year you had to buy your tickets six weeks in advance, this year they will be on sale at the gate.

What about the Mark McInnes and Kristy Fraser-Kirk scandal? Will the former CEO’s grubby bra-strap twanging and lewd suggestions stop women buying their skirts and make-up from David Jones?

Well according to the Sydney Telegraph, “Customer surveys reveal that shoppers dislike both Ms Fraser-Kirk and Mr McInnes - but that they feel sorry for Djs.”

I’m not so sure about that view, or our own Miranda Devine who seems to think that Fraser-Kirk wrecked her reputation, encouraged by “a conga line of pseudo-feminist poseurs” for a mere $850,000, while McInnes won public sympathy. Hmm.

I asked a researcher for an objective point of view. Michele Levine is CEO of Roy Morgan Research and they are currently looking at the issue. “Each company sponsors a sportsman for a different reason,” said Ms Levine. “His imagery has to be in alignment with their image. With Tiger Woods and Nike it's not about selling shoes,” it’s about being seen as the poor boy who struggled and practiced and became a world champion.

“It’s always been like this. Years ago we saw how Readers Digest responded to the early cancer research figures and cut out the advertising of cigarettes,” said Ms Levine, “Kodak were always very careful that who and what they sponsored had a wholesome image.”

Of course image can work in different ways in different cultures.

Jean-Christophe Babin, CEO of Tag Heuer, was asked why it was that this year the watch company increased the use of Tiger Woods in its TV and outdoor advertising in China.

It’s all a matter of what is seen as prestige. “With the Chinese it rather increases their esteem," he said. "In China, by tradition, your success is measured by your number of mistresses." And, presumably, you have more girls to buy watches for.

No comments: