Facts must be faced, the geniuses are all saying, the Tiger Woods’ brand is gone for good, vanished into the sand trap of eternity.
Wrong! Those who believe that really don’t understand the dynamics of personal branding -- they miss that the solution for a great brand’s problems will always be found in tapping the strengths of the brand itself.
The Tiger Woods’ brand -- the legendary achiever, the man with uncanny concentration, will and, yes, even character— could make an historic comeback a lot sooner than anyone thinks.
You hear a lot about Tiger’s brand from the money side, but, fact is, a brand -- especially a personal brand of Tiger’s magnitude -- is comprised of so much more than the money. We forget that the narrative of legendary sports figures cannot be valued in dollars -- it’s the story that brings the money in the first place.
For a long time, we believed the same sort of thing about Tiger, too: that his athletic achievements and his person were one. We imagined that the almost superhuman will and calmness, self-control and discipline seen on the golf course reflected what he was like off the golf course too.
All that might seem to be in pieces for Tiger now, but here's is why I believe he will be delivering one of the greatest sports "brandovers" and stories in history:
1. His Starting Point. Tiger hasn’t melted down. Even though we have seen a side of Tiger which is deeply disappointing, he has actively repudiated that behavior and done nothing more to re-enforce the negative image (everything that is “bad” happened in the past, even it is the recent past). His latest statement, admitting to "infidelities" and declaring that he will take an indefinite amount of time off from golf, is a statement of values. Period. End of story! It is a statement that is consistent with the focused champion -- this is someone who has seen a serious problem and is now going to make it right. Tiger is showing that he is willing to sacrifice endorsements and the game that defines him so that he can heal his family and himself -- this is something millions will respect and support. What they won’t support is someone who falls apart and stays that way or makes it worse. As bad as things are, Tiger still has a firm foundation to build a brand recovery on. He’s got his family, his determination to face the problem, to rebuild -- this is very important to all his fans and Target Market.
2.Redemption. People love stories of redemption. If Tiger does what he says he is going to do and works hard to heal his family and himself, he will re-enforce those aspects of his brand that made him a star. If, a year or so from now, Tiger tells his side of his story in such a way that he admits he was self-centered, his Target Market and the public will accept that he is a changed man who has applied himself to becoming a better man. -- This will actually make his brand stronger than it was before the scandal. However, to do this, he will need to tell people that while privacy is important, his privacy in the past was selfish and that he is now coming forward to tell his story for his fans, for his family and for his personal growth as a human being. Then people will say the prodigal son has returned -- the man we always believed in was really there.
3. Performance. As an athlete, Tiger is a performance brand. He arguably has two more decades of great golf left in him. If that’s true, then he hasn’t played even half of his professional career. As a performance brand, this means he will have the benefit of continuing to perform at the highest level on the golf course for some time. This is like having the wind at your back as a brand, because the media can’t help but pay attention to you if you’re on top of the leader board. Think O.J. Simpson. He was a great performance brand who, when he fell into disrepute, had nothing but past performance to rely on. How different would it have been, if his best football years were ahead of him after acquittal? Like it or not, because of the spotlight and adulation of great performance, he would have gradually built back his personal brand. Tiger is, of course, no O.J. Simpson. His failings are ones that millions can identify with. If Tiger combines a story of personal redemption with an outstanding performance on the golf course, wow, that will be something to watch.
Bottom line, the Tiger Woods brand has a powerful bond with millions of people and millions are rooting for a recovery. Don’t keep score of which sponsor leaves or which sponsor sticks it out (although my guess is that the smart ones will stick it out). Keep watch, instead, on the story of the Tiger Woods brand, because if that story triumphs, the sponsors and the money will follow -- and, more importantly, a new bond will be built, the kind of bond that only the greatest athletes have had with their fans.
And, remember, the business of sports and the business of life are always easier if you keep marketing in mind.
John Tantillo is a marketing and branding expert and president of the Marketing Department of America. He is a frequent contributor to the Fox Forum.