Gatorade's Tiger Woods Focus was discounted at Walgreens in Miami Beach Saturday. The product, which will soon be disappearing from shelves, was three for $5. Just as Woods' sponsors were beginning to discount him too. Gillette was swift to make the cut. The company said Woods' role will be limited, offering the elegant and very commercial touch that it is supporting his desire for privacy, rather than insuring against any jokes that might be made about facial abrasions.
Woods' face has disappeared from the home page of Accenture. Accenture replaced its labored analogies to the great golfer with, perhaps not entirely happily, speed skaters on what seems like somewhat thin ice. It then announced it would sever all ties with Woods.
AT&T admitted Saturday that it was considering its options. But why did these brands get involved with Tiger Woods in the first place? For all of his fame and glory, how many of these brands really need Tiger Woods? How many of them are defined by the presence of the great golfer? Indeed, for how many of them is Woods even remotely relevant?
Woods' image was one of quite unreal perfection. The talent, the wins, the family. He is unlikely to enjoy that image again. In the good times, it might have been a fine ego trip to have your brand associated with the world's greatest golfer, but sometimes it's just that. So when wondering about Woods' commercial future, it is worth separating the brands that are core from the somewhat more parasitical.
Woods has created a lasting, winning profile for Nike Golf, and Nike will stick with him. As sports people, they know how good he is and they are betting not only that he will be back, but that this scandal will offer him even greater motivation to win some more. Win some more for Nike. Because in golf, Nike is Tiger and Tiger is Nike. Fearless, successful and a little scary.
Contrast that with Woods' involvement in one of the more questionable commercial relationships of recent times. The one that suggested Tiger might be synonymous with Buick. Those who believed that Tiger drives a Buick, that Buicks were in any way Tiger-like rather than possum-postured, might also believe that he'd make a fine Accenture management consultant.
Then there's another Woods sponsor, AT&T. Did Tiger send his alleged texts over AT&T's sometimes patchy network? AT&T might play a role in sponsoring some golf, but it's not as if it intended to wheel Woods out as its major bag carrier in its current fight over 3G coverage against Verizon. No, that role was opened to the floor, where it was picked up by Luke Wilson.
If he manages a successful return, Woods can try to associate himself with Sprint, BMW and Price Waterhouse Coopers, if that kind of dollar would ever be offered. It really won't matter that much to the brand. He will never be fundamental to a cell phone brand, a car brand or a consultancy. At best, he will be a symbol of their success, as much as a symbol of his own.
The PGA Tour, Nike, EA Sports and, perhaps, Gatorade, represent something a little different. They have far more invested in the Woods name and persona. And the Woods name and persona have far more riding on these kinds of brands. They are truly relevant to his sport. Some might also find it strange that Tag Heuer, which had been rumored to have removed promotional material featuring Woods from its stores, Monday declared it would carry on with its sponsorship. A company spokesperson said, "He's the best in his domain. We respect his performance in the sport."
This doesn't mean that Woods will be featured in future ads. It may also mean that Tag Heuer's contract was more complex than that with other brands. However, it is, perhaps, also a declaration of just how much the Swiss watch manufacturer sees itself wedded to sports.
Some critics have compared his situation to that of Olympic gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps, who was caught bong to rights. Phelps was sponsored by such luminaries as Kelloggs and Swatch. And still is. But the difference is that smoking pot is seen as rather charming these days. Kids do it. Sportsmen do it. Even educated CEOs do it. The Cy Young winner, Tim Lincecum, was caught with pot only the other week. America, indeed, has always assuaged its uptightness with a little chemical help. And Phelps can make a joke or two about pot because, well, we all do.
Woods has been less fortunate. He has been caught in allegedly multiple situations of sex and even in situations of alleged multiple sex. They say America is a forgiving place. But America isn't so quick to forgive the full, unbridled sex-outside-of-marriage thing. This is the country that attempted to impeach a President for his White House sexual escapades. This is the country that will not easily forgive John Edwards for having a child beyond wedlock.
It has, however, largely forgiven another Nike icon, Kobe Bryant. He was charged with sexual assault, but not convicted. We'll forgive them unless they're definitely guilty. Phew, now let's make some money. It is less the fact of scandal that will have his sponsors wondering, but the fact that they are inadvertently being associated with, well, sex. And, by the sound of it, rather sleazy, indiscriminate sex.
When you're confronted with tales of extramarital sex in the marital home, in the back of a car, even on the day Woods' father died (admit it, you've been fascinated by this stuff, haven't you?), you really are dealing behavior unbecoming of the perfect pitchman.
So even if Woods makes a sporting recovery, brands might not be so swift in returning to his bosom. Fashion brands love sex. Fast moving consumer goods, a little less. So while it might be Calvin Klein's moist dream to be associated with the new Woods, it would be hard to see him hawking potato chips any time soon. Especially party-size bags.
If Woods can come back and win, the core sporting brands will rally around him as if he is the man who put the "pro" into prodigal. That will be the base from which other sponsors might be sought. By then, he might have a more stable marriage. Equally, he might be divorced. But he will still have to get past the idea that he's a man of dubious character. And brands love to associate themselves with those who appear more than perfect, if not redeemed.
If he never wins another major, the larger sponsors will have no use for Woods at all. If he wins another major or, indeed, several, there will be some who might consider taking the risk, as long as his private life has stabilized and as long as his woeful PR advisers have found a way to finally get ahead of the story.
It's a reasonable guess that Woods will be back for the 2010 Masters. He loves golf and he loves a challenge, after all. And the challenge this time will be to get people to forget the sex.
By Chris Matyszczyk: