Does player endorsement matter to your customers?

Can pro tour player endorsement of equipment influence your customers’ buying decisions? Glyn Pritchard looks at the arguments.

Has a customer ever said something to you like, “I want a set of irons as used by ‘so-and-so’ who plays on the professional tour”? I suspect not. Most golfers make equipment purchasing decisions based on a range of reasons and, while professional endorsement may be a factor, it’s likely to be only a minor issue in the total mix. More important will be an individual’s previous experience of the brand and the experience and recommendations of other players whom they trust.

glynWhich begs the question, why do golf equipment manufacturers invest so much money in professional tour player endorsements? Nike immediately sponsored Tiger Woods when he turned pro in 1996 and in 2000 Woods signed a record breaking five year, $105 million contract extension with Nike. The company intended to use Tiger Woods to promote Nike shoes, apparel and later balls and equipment to a broader demographic for golf. Woods’ youth and ethnicity would make golf hip for a new generation of players that would want Nike apparel and equipment.

Twenty years on we can say that the strategy didn’t quite work out as intended as last year Nike ended its equipment and ball product lines to focus on golf apparel and shoes. So, despite its massive investment in player sponsorship of Woods, McIlroy, Casey and a host of others Nike wasn’t able to take a substantial share of the equipment market.

One of the intriguing aspects of Nike’s withdrawal from equipment and balls is that their roster of players is now free to select equipment and balls from other manufacturers. As Nike has always insisted on solus branding for its players showing no other endorsements, this should mean Nike sponsored players choose equipment based on personal preference rather than payment, with Woods signing a deal to use Bridgestone balls.

Woods has also switched back to the Scotty Cameron putter he used to win 13 of his 14 major victories. He is sticking with Nike irons but is trying a TaylorMade M2 driver. Coincidentally McIlroy initially went for the same mix of Scotty Cameron putter, Nike irons and TaylorMade woods but is preparing to start the new season with Callaway woods and irons, Titleist ball and wedges, and an Odyssey putter.

Mathew Fitzpatrick does not have an equipment sponsorship contract and recently stated this following his victory in the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai last November: “I used a Callaway driver from the start of last year pretty much through to about three weeks ago and I had two wins with that driver and it was fantastic, very straight. But I put in a TaylorMade [M2 driver] in China for the last three rounds and then put it in the last three rounds at Nedbank and all four this week, and I’ve got to admit, it’s made a big difference, there’s no doubt about it. I don’t have a contract with anyone, so I kind of hate giving them free publicity, but I’ve got to give it to them.”

All of this brings us to the critical point about pro tour player endorsement – if you’re paid handsomely, even obscenely, to endorse a product does it have any real credibility, especially when given a free hand you choose totally different equipment?

When I’ve interviewed executives from the equipment manufacturers and asked about player endorsement a common theme has emerged – we have to do some to be credible in the market. Doug Wright, global commercial director of Wilson, said: “It’s part of a pyramid of influence. You have the tour players at the top and the ‘D’ level amateurs at the bottom and that influence does filter through. You can’t put your whole marketing budget into tour player endorsement, but you do have to convince the trade that you’re a serious brand with proven winners.”

John Clark, managing director of Ping Europe Ltd, and a senior vice-president of Ping Inc USA, commented: “The success of Ping hardware is based on technical performance so high-level player endorsement is vital because it adds validity to our product performance statements. It is an important part of our marketing message that these great players use Ping equipment.”

Golf buyers are not stupid and realise that player endorsements are the result of a cash contracts. But the equipment manufacturers feel they must sponsor some players to be taken seriously in the market. There is also the brand exposure that player sponsorship brings. It’s no coincidence that in the post round interviews players always wear their caps, even indoors, with sponsor branding showing prominently. It has to be admitted that player sponsorship keeps the brand ‘out there’ in a way other advertising and promotion cannot.