11 years. That’s how long it has been since Tiger Woods, once golf’s most dominant and prodigal player, has won a major title. For many athletes, 11 years would not represent the time between two demonstrations of greatness. It would likely represent an entire career. A peak and a decline.
This is especially true if, in that 11 years, the individual endured life-altering personal strife, multiple surgeries, and unending obstacles. By the time Tiger walked onto the fairway a week ago, much of the sports world had reduced him to a relic of the past; a fallen hero with no chance of redemption.
But last Sunday, the naysayers were silenced. The legendary sports broadcaster, Jim Nance, announced Tiger’s win as “the best event I’ve ever covered.” Golf magazine observed that “Woods matters because we know him, and because we have known him. He matters because he set a goal some four decades ago, to chase down Jack Nicklaus. And he matters because he’s still at it. This was a win for having goals, for going through bad times and coming out the other side.”
And it is for this reason that what Tiger has displayed – not just on Sunday, but for the past 11 years and throughout his career – serves as a model for an unwavering commitment to achieving one’s goals. And these branding lessons don’t only apply to individuals, but to brands and organizations that seek to develop who they are and reexamine how they go about achieving their objectives.
Branding lesson #1: Own up to your mistakes
Tiger Woods had, arguably, one of the most powerful personal brands in history. While Nike began its golf division in 1984, many credit Tiger’s signing in 1996 as the catalyst for the division’s expansive growth. Nike sites that, following Tiger’s historic Master’s win in 1997 at the age of 21, the custom Nike shirt he wore in the tournament later had to “be mass-produced due to overwhelming consumer demand.”The golf world adored him; non-golfers knew his name. He was a revelation; the best in the world; one of the original disruptors, turning the very institution of golf on its head. And then all hell broke loose.
Personal crises, infidelity, and the end of his marriage. Then came the injuries and the subsequent surgeries. He lost everything – his family, his reputation, and his physical prowess, all in breakneck succession. The PR was a nightmare. It seemed like, for Tiger, there was no coming back. But, as we know now, that was not the case. Tiger reflected on his mistakes. He homed in on what was important: mending his relationships, focusing on his health, and reimagining how he could create a new path forward. Through facing his challenges head-on his perspective changed. His priorities changed. His vision of life changed.
Like Tiger, in the wake of controversy, brands have to accept blame and change course. In today’s landscape of tweets, tagging, and twenty-four-hour news cycles, those that fail to acknowledge their mistakes in an authentic, meaningful way will feel consumers’ wrath.
Take the recent racial profiling case involving a Starbucks in Philadelphia, where two men of color were escorted out of a store by police. Looking back 30 years ago, before the age of the internet, companies in a PR crisis could often shape the conversation, then sit back and wait for the public ire to simply blow over. Today, that is simply not an option, as evidenced by Starbuck’s intelligent response to what became a furious public outcry. The company’s leadership hit the news circuits, taking ownership and apologizing to the men involved and the community as a whole. They the company took the costly yet definitive step of closing more than 8,000 stores for racial bias training. They were active in their response and proactive in their resolution. And, as a result, for the most part, they were forgiven.
Companies that take negative momentum and judo it into an opportunity to transform, evolve, and mature are more likely to regain favor with consumers. Like Starbucks, Tiger embraced this philosophy and walked its path all the way to this weekend’s historic comeback.
Branding lesson #2 – Self-awareness leads to self-belief
In the aftermath of Tiger’s controversies and injuries, talking heads emerged from all sides, expressing pity, disgust, and even ire when examining Tiger’s reality at rock bottom. A reporter for The Guardian mused that “Woods appears a lost, sorry soul. The odds on him featuring again on entry lists for golf tournaments have never been longer.”
But Tiger saw a path. And that path required discipline, patience, and pain. It sometimes carried with it self-doubt, but more often, self-belief. In an interview just a few days before his recent Masters’ win, Tiger was quoted saying, “I feel like I can win again. I’ve proven I can do it. I put myself in with a chance of winning the last two majors of last year.” Tiger lost his way, but at the end of the day, he stayed true to his core self and his ultimate vision. He celebrated the small victories and used them as momentum to achieve a bigger one.
For brands facing operational or marketing challenges, the same approach can hold true. Sometimes campaigns don’t go as expected. Sales revenue is down. Forecasts warn of failure. But your faith remains. Your team believes strongly in its vision. And the lesson from Tiger is clear. As Hogan Shrum, President of A Little Bird put it, “If you are committed to your mission, stay the course. Don’t let trends or competitors sway your stance. Stay firm. Stay defiant.”
Back to Nike. Last year the brand fearlessly launched a bold ad campaign featuring ex-NFL star and lightening rod for controversy, Colin Kaepernick. The ad, aligning with a “self-belief” ethos asserted, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Critics called for a brand boycott but, in the end, Nike was rewarded for its stance with a 31% increase in sales in the wake of the campaign. They fearlessly stayed true to their vision and their culture despite the risk and it proved to be the lucrative way forward.
Photo: Colin Kaepernick via Twitter
Branding lesson #3: Priorities
By all apparent measures, it seems clear that Tiger’s priorities have changed since his initial fall from grace. In his “previous life,” he seemed to put an inordinate value on amassing victories and achieving GOAT status. It was almost a foregone conclusion that he would break Jack Nicklaus’ record. Achieving that goal was everything. And with each win came increased cockiness, swagger, and a sense of sheer invincibility. His subsequent embarrassing and personally-destructive actions, which ultimately ended his marriage, seemed fueled by this illusion. And when he eventually lost everything, so too did this immature vision of himself begin to wane. Now, he seems to be a better person, better father, and a more grounded competitor.
Like Tiger, many brands are doggedly chasing their own milestones, sometimes with such narrow focus that the elements that make up an organization – its people, its purpose – get lost. Whether a company is seeking higher revenue numbers, industry dominance, or exponential growth, in these cases, the company’s legacy becomes more about the chase than the outcome. Like a Hydra, once the head of one objective is taken off, two more take its place. Achievement loses its meaning because its hunger never ends.
Tiger seemed to rediscover what gives his life meaning. Equally, the question brand teams need to ask themselves is this: “why are we here?” And here’s a hint. If your answer is to make a lot of money, you are setting your organization up for failure. We, as human beings, all have a unique purpose. In the same vein, a brand needs to have a larger calling. It is your team’s belief in this purpose that will ultimately be the driver of your success. Similarly, today’s consumer wants to align with a company that shares his or her larger values. Brands with a clear and demonstrable purpose, and those that engage with consumers and their teams outside of a transactional relationship, will be rewarded.
Tiger Woods stunned the world this weekend. Returning to Golf Magazine’s coverage of the event, the author said that “the power of the moment transcended those on property. It sent a charge through the stoic set of Tour pros, not just those that stayed around to soak in the revelry. Stories poured in from across the world on Sunday night and into Monday of just what Woods’ win had done to people. Fans in attendance, craning their necks for a peek at the man in red, jumping in the air when his final putt disappeared. Families huddled together, bawling in front of their TV sets.”
Tigers’ legacy has transformed from a list of historical achievements to an odds-defying example of the power of the human spirit. This isn’t an athlete’s story anymore – it is a human story. There is power in Tiger’s journey and, for brands, an immense amount of wisdom to unpack. Those that choose to pay attention to the abundance of lessons will no doubt gain a better understanding about the importance of purpose, perseverance, and faith, as well as the place that these elements have in the world of branding and organizational identity.