Tiger brand

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on December 30, 2009

Tiger Woods has plenty of company in the personal brand doghouse, and there is reason for Mr. Woods to take heart in that reality. Not because his indiscretions were preceded, but because his brand has a bright future, despite some high-profile defections among his sponsors. Basketball greats Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are well-acquainted with scandal, and could give Mr. Woods a compelling prep talk about his professional and financial prospects, if not the odds that his marriage can be salvaged.

Both Messrs. Jordan and Bryant moved past their own public scandals of the loins after a period of penance. Mr. Jordan paid a girlfriend $250,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to keep their affair a secret before splitting for a second and final time with his wife Jasmine Jordan. He reportedly paid Ms. Jordan a $168 million settlement six months after a judge ruled that the former girlfriend, Karla Knafel, wasn’t entitled to the $5 million she alleged Mr. Jordan promised her.

Although Mr. Jordan had retired-his last of three bows as a player-by the time he and Ms. Jordan divorced, the popular Nike Air Jordan athletic shoes remain popular on the strength of his achievements-including being named the second most important athlete of the century after Babe Ruth by the Associated Press. He’s still receiving honors. In April this year, Mr. Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He is part-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats.

After Mr. Bryant was arrested in 2003 for sexual assault-a criminal case was eventually dropped and a civil case was settled-Mr. Bryant saw endorsement contracts with McDonald’s and Nutella terminated, and sales of his jersey plummeted. Nike-as in the case of Mr. Woods-stuck with the troubled athlete, but declined to use his image or market a new shoe for him that year. Two years later, however, Nike was again leveraging Mr. Bryant’s brand, and last year asked him to simulate performing dangerous stunts to promote the company’s Hyper Dunk shoes in viral videos, such as this one.

Next year Nike will “fully launch” the Nike Zoom Kobe V. Other endorsements-such as the “Black Mamba Collection” by Nubeo-have materialized. This year Messrs. Kobe and Jordan tied for second in Forbes’ magazine’s list of the world’s highest-paid athletes with $45 million. Also this year, Mr. Bryant had the top-selling jersey in the United States, Europe, and China according to the National Basketball Association.

Mr. Woods’ revival may already be under way. Despite his personal troubles, he was named “Athlete of the Decade ” by the Associated Press and he was voted PGA player of the year last week. “The recognition by [his] peers is one of the highest compliments a PGA Tour member can receive,” PGA commissioner Timothy Finchem said in a statement released by the PGA late last week.

Does this suggest that his former big-name endorsers-which include Accenture and Pepsi-erred in abandoning their wayward celebrity endorser, who has been under intense media scrutiny since a controversial late-November automobile accident outside his home? Mr. Woods later-too late in the view of many of his detractors-admitted to first committing “transgressions” against his family and later to an affair. Since then, a number of women have come forward alleging dalliances with Mr. Woods.

Yes, the defectors probably were hasty, although not everyone agrees. Accenture sought to align its brand with Mr. Woods’ drive for professional success, not his personal life, for six years. Abruptly-and awkwardly-terminating the relationship suggests that Accenture never really believed its hype in the first place. But if Accenture was rash, Mr. Woods could have learned from the examples of Messrs. Jordan and Bryant as well. Mr. Jordan erred by trying to cover up his sins-something much easier to do before the advent of social networks-and showed that doesn’t work. Mr. Bryant came clean much more quickly. Honesty really is the best policy.

No one-presumably including Mr. Woods-knows whether his marriage will survive the scandal and media scrutiny. But the goodwill associated with his personal brand is likely to endure. Some will argue that Mr. Woods has betrayed his squeaky clean image, causing irreparable damage. But Messrs. Jordan and Bryant were the idols of young boys the world over, not just men-and women-old enough to appreciate golf. Hopefully those young minds learned from the experiences of their heroes-including the fact that sometimes people make stupid mistakes they shouldn’t.

Mr. Woods’ fans for the most part probably already understand that, and are ready to forgive and move on. Personal brands are never be perfect, but they are always in demand.

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