Dressed in Sunday red, hands on hips, Tiger Woods stood at the edge of a rocky drop-off and stared at the water below.
“It’s what you do next that counts,” the Accenture ad said.
For six years, those ads featuring Woods could be found in every corner of the world. There he was in the weeds, on the green, celebrating with a fist pump.
Every billboard oozed power and success:
“We know what it takes to be a Tiger.”
“Go on, be a Tiger.”
But when Woods ran his SUV over a fire hydrant last Nov. 27, unleashing a torrent of tawdry and shocking details about his infidelities, those clever catch phrases quickly became punchlines. Within weeks, Accenture and other sponsors distanced themselves from the golfer who had built a billion-dollar industry on his spectacular success on the course and impeccable image off it. It was part of the fallout from a scandal that eventually cost him his marriage and his No. 1 world ranking.
A year has passed since the infamous crash that started it all, and Woods appears ready to re-enter the marketing game. A survey within the last month to test Woods’ appeal produced “very powerful, positive, positive results,” his longtime agent, Mark Steinberg, said, adding that he’s already engaged in “several constructive conversations.”
“We are a society of second chances. That’s been proven over the years,” Steinberg said. “He’s not going to be in any deal until he looks the company in the eye and has a serious conversation with them. ‘How are you going to live your life? We want to be part of the redemption, rehabilitation. Are you serious about that?’ And he knows that. He’s comfortable with it. And he’s going to do that.”
He has already started.
Woods is tweeting and was a guest last week on ESPN Radio’s “Mike & Mike in the Morning” Show. In an op-ed column for Newsweek magazine, his tone was humble and hopeful.
“A smart decision by Tiger and his team to be proactive and get ahead of the one-year story,” said David Schwab, a vice president at Octagon specializing in celebrity strategy for brands. “Now those stories will talk about his latest words, goals and plans.”
Before the crash, Woods was the standard by which all other megawatt pro stars were measured. He exuded class, excellence and determination. Most importantly he was a winner. Corporations around the world were eager to align themselves with him, even if their business had nothing to do with golf. He was, Forbes estimated last year, the first $1 billion athlete.
TV ratings rose when he played, and soared when he was in contention on Sunday. He was a staple of TV and print ads. He was Nike Golf, a walking, talking embodiment of the brand. Even when he did ads for other companies, the Swoosh or TW logo was often present.
“Tiger has done a great job breaking the rules of marketing,” said Dean DeBiase, an expert in advertising and brand strategy who is featured in the new book “Nike.”
After the crash, though, sponsors found themselves being pulled down by the weight of the scandal. Accenture, for example, was the inadvertent butt of jokes, its ad taglines fodder for late-night comics and tabloid websites.
Two weeks after the crash, Accenture dumped Woods.
“Although Tiger had been an effective symbol of Accenture’s high-performance business strategy, our research and analysis concluded that the news surrounding his personal issues last year compromised his ability to help us deliver our key messages to the marketplace,” the global consulting firm said in a statement when asked to evaluate its decision almost a year later.
AT&T Inc., whose logo was on Woods’ bag, and Gatorade, which had created a Tiger Woods-brand drink, soon followed. Gillette and Tag Heuer de-emphasized him in their marketing.
According to Kantar Media, Woods appeared in about $700,000 worth of advertising through the first nine months of this year, all for EA Sports and Nike. In the same period a year ago, Woods appeared in $70 million worth of advertising on behalf of his sponsors.
“I knew there was going to be fallout. I’m not sure I looked at a list and went down every company. But I can’t say I was terribly surprised, except by maybe one,” Steinberg said.
Woods went more than four months between TV commercials before showing up in the black-and-white Nike ad featuring the voice of his late father, Earl, who says, “Tiger … I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything?”
The ad may have only added to his woes, however, with many questioning its tastefulness. Nike later said the audio was from a 2004 documentary in which the elder Woods was comparing his parenting style with that of his wife.
“When a company takes on a sponsorship, they take on this person like you’re friending someone on Facebook,” said Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries, an Atlanta-based marketing/consulting firm. “Who your friends are says a lot about you, and corporate sponsors really take that to heart.”
Companies like Nike and EA Sports, whose ties to Woods were based on sport, not overall image, remained loyal, and those relationships provide a blueprint for future deals.
“Nike’s brand equity is not really about sports or athletic performance … but about the emotion of sports,” said DeBiase, now chairman of Reboot Partners, a growth advisory consulting firm. “They sell what drives people to watch or participate -- the fact that sports is the ultimate drama in which no one, not even the participants, knows the outcome.
“They are not standing by him as much as standing by his reality, delivering the drama that makes sports so compelling.”
Woods still fascinates people.
Aside from a few snide comments, he’s been greeted by supportive fans since he returned at the Masters in April. Based on the size of their galleries, only Phil Mickelson can rival Woods’ star power. After Woods’ posted his first Tweet on Nov. 17 -- “What’s up everyone. Finally decided to try out twitter!” -- he added more than 40,000 new followers in three hours.
“I think I like this twitter thing,” Woods said in his second tweet. “You guys are awesome. Thanks for all the love.”
Overnight ratings for the final round of the U.S. Open, with Woods, Mickelson and Ernie Els in contention, were way up, 35 percent over 2009, when only the third round was completed at Bethpage Black on Sunday because of rain. Even the notoriously tough British press took it easy on him at the British Open and Ryder Cup.
Potential sponsors have taken note.
Though Steinberg did not give specifics, he said he is talking with an Asian company based outside of China about an endorsement deal. He also said Woods will have a new logo on his bag “at some point next year”; the Tiger Woods Foundation logo was on his bag at the HSBC Champions and Australian Masters.
“I feel pretty positive that we’ll start to slowly build back his partnership base,” Steinberg said.
Aside from repairing his image, Woods has another project: fixing his game.
He failed to win a single tournament for the first time in 15 seasons as a pro, and only once this year did he go into the weekend within three shots of the lead. He has gone 10 majors without a victory, matching the longest drought of his career.
Worse, he hasn’t seemed to be in control of his golf. Divorce proceedings loomed over Woods for most of the summer -- it was finalized Aug. 23 -- distracting his thoughts and disrupting his normal practice routine. After dumping swing coach Hank Haney in May, Woods began working with Sean Foley at the PGA Championship.
“We never underestimate his abilities as a competitor,” Nike said in a statement.
But he needs to start winning, Ries said.
“We will quickly forget this time if he comes back,” she said. “But the more time we see him downtrodden on the course, losing, the more trouble it is.”
Corporations and consumers alike want to be associated with winners. It’s why athletes make such attractive marketing partners.
But Woods has something equally powerful working in his favor right now, Ries said.
“We love stories of redemption. We want that happy ending,” she said. “That’s what Tiger has going for him, because we are rooting for him now.”