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Why Sponsors Will Ignore Tiger Woods on Twitter

Can Tiger Woods tweet his way back into your heart, and the hearts of advertising sponsors? Probably not, until he starts winning golf games again. Woods started a charm offensive at the end of last week by opening a Twitter account (247,000 followers and counting), writing a column in Newsweek and giving an interview to ESPN Radio. The effort comes as we approach the one-year anniversary of the car crash that unraveled Woods' baroque sex life and led to his divorce -- and also plunged him into an eye-popping losing streak on the links.

Most commenters see Woods' new enthusiasm for engaging with the public -- or at least the media -- as an attempt to set the agenda around the inevitable one-year-later coverage. The maneuvering is a useful illustration of a truism in marketing that is often forgotten: There's a difference between your brand and your branding, and there's no point bothering with the latter until the former is on a solid footing.

Compare Woods with Michael Vick. Vick's crimes were magnitudes worse than anything Woods did but since he was allowed to resume his career with the Philadelphia Eagles, Vick has kept his head down and emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Forbes suggested that it's a matter of time before his sponsors return. Similarly, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was once linked to a homicide in Atlanta and is now the pitchman for Procter & Gamble (PG)'s Old Spice.

The equation is simple: Winning = forgiveness = sponsors. Woods' problem is that until he wins a tournament, there's very little to say about him that doesn't also require the backstory about the car crash, the women, the fall from grace, and his concurrent inability to roll a small ball into a small hole.

This problem is not unique to sports branding, but it is often misunderstood in non-sports branding because consumer goods marketing is magnitudes more complicated than sports. In the same way Woods will be unable to turn his image around until he starts lifting trophies, there is no point in marketing or advertising your brand unless the brand or product itself is fully ready for primetime. All too often, marketers attempt to change their fortunes by switching their advertising even though the product is the same. This is the tail wagging the dog. The product or brand must be a winner first before you embark on any publicity gathering exercise.

Which is why, when Woods writes a column titled, "How I've Redefined Victory," the reaction of most people will be a pantomime eye-roll. Until he actually wins one.