The Tiger and the Cheetah

December 1, 2009

Tiger Woods’ recent domestic issue/car accident brings to the fore, once again, the risks associated with celebrity endorsement. Tiger is an über-brand, the face of a whole bunch of brands – Nike, Buick, Tag Heuer, Accenture, Gatorade, Gillette, etc. – not to mention the PGA itself. Out clauses are standard fare for brands in celebrity relationships – so if the situation continues to metastasize, the brands may well have the option to cut their losses and move on.

But Tiger is no mere endorser. He is a platform for product development and positioning and packaging; his personality is so intertwined with many of these brands that there are no easy outs. Gatorade’s got a line of Tiger drinks. Nike Golf for all intents and purposes is Tiger Woods. Accenture has virtually positioned their entire company around Tiger’s ability to hit and sink a 50-foot birdie putt.

Chances are some contrition will be coming our way, followed by the well-worn apology tour (Oprah, Larry King, Leno) – and this whole thing will blow over in a couple of weeks. Yet, if sports talk radio is any gauge, this issue has brought to the surface a host of previously silent concerns about Tiger that are finally being voiced. “He’s elitist.” “He’s aloof.” “He’s calculating.”

True or not, perception is everything, especially in marketing. The media sharks will continue to circle and Tiger’s name will continue to grow enmeshed in (a probably brief) scandal. And while this happens, these Tiger-heavy brands will certainly reduce their Tiger media spending, at least for a while.

Over the longer term, will Gatorade or Nike or Accenture move away from Tiger? Unless this whole thing spirals out of control, that’s unlikely. All have doubled-down on Tiger and they’ve got little choice but to stand by their man. In time, though, these brands may be hesitant to get in any deeper. We might, for example, see Gatorade Tiger give way to more benefit driven naming (Focus, Drive, etc.), bringing Tiger back to just one of many sports figures in Gatorade campaigns. And, who knows, we may one day see an Accenture ad in some airport somewhere that does not include Tiger.

Chester's Fries

In this context, the folks at Frito Lay are looking like geniuses. Why build a sub-brand around a sports celebrity (and be subject to his foibles) when you can build one around a fully owned and animated celebrity? If you haven’t noticed, Frito Lay’s bad boy of the snack aisle, Chester Cheetah, is no mere spokescat these days; he has become a sub-brand all his own. The Chester brand is now a line of cheesy snack foods that don’t quite fit in the Cheetos portfolio: popcorn, hot fries, etc. As a strategy to jump off of the noisy snack food shelf, this is a great example of recognizing a strong brand asset and using it as a tool to fuel growth. Gatorade did the same using the Tiger brand asset. Ditto for Nike and the Tiger Woods golf line. But at this moment, Chester Cheetah could actually be more solid, more controllable, and more reliable as a long-term asset.

As a sports fan, I hope this whole incident is all just much about nothing fueled by a celebrity culture and a 24/7 news cycle. As a marketer, I am intrigued by the hypotheticals if this thing takes an unexpected turn for the worse. But mostly, I just can’t imagine a world where Chester Cheetah is a more compelling sub-brand than Tiger Woods.

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