What's a face worth? When it belongs to the most recognizable athlete in the world, quite a lot - at least according to major corporate sponsors. And this past Thanksgiving, that community was left reeling in the wake of the shocking news surrounding Tiger Woods, the most well-paid endorser in the world. (Score big by taking Tiger Woods' approach to golf and applying it to your portfolio. Check out Play The Market Like Tiger Plays Golf.)
Over the past 13 years, Tiger had elevated himself from a mere golfer through his utter dominance of his sport. He became a global icon - a brand in a single word. Tiger was excellence. Tiger was integrity, achievement, consistency and dedication. He became just as valuable to those who pitched to consumers as he was to those pitching to business.
It was a rare combination, and the closest thing in marketing circles to a sure bet. It helped him earn an astonishing $110 million in 2008, becoming the first billion dollar athlete. But it all came crashing down in the blink of a crashed SUV.
Sponsors Choose Sides
As the details of Tiger's complicated web of infidelities came to light, each of his major sponsors was left with a critical question - stick with him or treat him as toxic waste. Global consulting group Accenture (NYSE:ACN) and personal care company Gillette, a brand of Proctor & Gamble (NYSE:PG), were the first two companies to make that choice.
Gillette took a middle of the road approach, saying that they would temporarily stop using Tiger for media ads while the golfer took time off from the sport to focus on his personal life. While this obviously leaves the door open for an outright drop, for the time being Gillette is leaving its options open.
Accenture, meanwhile, took swift and decisive action, completely severing its relationship with Tiger Woods. In its statement, Accenture noted that Tiger "was no longer the right representative for its advertising." The consulting group, which had used Tiger exclusively in a wide range of print, TV and billboard ads for the past six years, is scrambling to quickly create a new ad campaign, but it's going to be difficult to unwind "Go On, Be A Tiger" from the company's image.
But despite the central focus of Tiger in their ads, shares of Accenture have performed very well in the past six weeks since the incident first made global headlines. While it's notoriously difficult to parse out what drives a share price from one month to the next, it appears that optimism over Accenture's prospects in 2010 amidst a recovering economy is outweighing the fallout from Tiger's personal life implosion. (You can't predict exactly how stocks will behave, but knowing what affects prices will put you ahead of the pack. Don't miss Forces That Move Stock Prices.)
Nike Stays Put
Tiger's relationship with Nike is especially entangled. The two have been together since the day Tiger turned pro in 1996. Before he came on board, Nike had no golf division. Today Nike is a major player in golf, selling Tiger-branded clubs, clothes and gear that bring in hundreds of millions in revenue. Tiger even has a special arrangement where he gets veto power on any product that Nike creates in his image.
Nike would have found it extremely expensive and difficult to be in the golf market without Tiger, so it was not shocking to hear company co-founder Phil Knight come out publicly in Tiger's defense. Mr. Knight says he supports Tiger's break from golf, and that he and Nike are standing pat, believing that the incident will be a "minor blip" as time passes. Shares of Nike (NYSE:NKE) have been stagnant the past six weeks, underperforming the S&P 500 by about three percentage points in that time.
AT&T Says No Thanks
AT&T, meanwhile, had little friction in the way of severing ties, having just inked their relationship with Tiger in early 2009, and stepping in to sponsor the golfer's tournament after Buick was forced to drop out amidst financial difficulties.
While AT&T (NYSE:T) will still sponsor the golf tournament, they have severed direct ties to Tiger, ending what would have been a very lucrative multiyear endorsement involving a heavy media presence.
Gatorade Plays Through
Gatorade brings us the most amusing of all sponsor news. Tiger was on an exclusive line of sports drinks called Tiger Focus, a line that Pepsico (NYSE:PEP) says it decided to discontinue just before Thanksgiving as part of an ongoing effort to revamp product lines. While Pepsico has not officially severed ties with Tiger, I leave it to your own judgment to determine whether the move to drop the line was really the result of absolutely sublime timing.
The $12 Billion Question
Again, it's notoriously difficult to look at the stock action of a particular company and know the power of a specific event or driver. But two finance professors at the University of California, Davis took a stab at it, and estimated that up to $12 billion of combined shareholder value had been wiped out of companies that were endorsers of Tiger Woods. Even if you put a wide margin around that estimate, you still get a figure that amounts to decades of what Tiger would have earned in endorsement dollars.
So the marketing world is left to ponder several questions. Are there any true role models left? Is any one person worth staking a product line or a company image to? Tiger had been well vetted by all these companies and dozens of others, and he always came up clean. One moral here may simply be that if somebody has the will - and resources - to keep something secret, chances are they will be able to do so…for a while. But in the Information Age, no closet door stays closed forever.