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From Icon To Irrelevant
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Why Doesn't Anybody Care About Tiger Woods Anymore?

Stop the presses! Tiger Woods is only 7 shots under par at the Des Moines Open.

Well, not really. He just muddled through the Australian Masters, after muddling through his last handful of tournaments. The fact that nobody seems to care raises some interesting questions about the nature, sustainability, and utility of celebrity:

  • Was his celebrity artificial? He was (and perhaps still is) a golf prodigy. The Mozart of the Links. There is no way you can ignore his amazing and many times unique abilities. But c'mon now. Golf? I know there's a consumer segment that plays and follows the game, but as far as general interest or qualities of spectator sports go, I put its popularity just above curling. He was famous primarily because his corporate sponsors paid for his recognition. Again, we'd certainly have known about his prowess (er, at golf) from sports news reporting, but the nature of his celebrity was decided by the bank accounts of Nike, Accenture, et al. It's possible that once that support and those activities stopped, he disappeared for the vast majority of us who don't feel compelled to track him down. If you're a marketer, you need to wonder how much of your next brand awareness or social media campaign will be similarly artificial, and similarly irrelevant once you paying for it.
  • Did he use it up? Fame is a fluid concept; there are people who've been famous for over a thousand years, and others who achieve fame for about a nanosecond. There are few terms that warrant more definitional specificity, as we use it to label both sorts of characters (and all those famously lost somewhere between). When people or events dominate our public consciousness -- Mel and Oksana's ongoing travails courtesy of TMZ, the BP Gulf disaster) I wonder if they effectively use up the interest any of us could have had in them? It's as if Tiger compressed all of the attention we we were ever willing to give to a golfer, even one as miraculous as he, and spent it in a single burst of flurry of fame. Now we just don't care anymore? This begs questions about what it takes to deliver sustainable brand or reputational awareness. One thought would be that it's not about big, visionary events or campaigns, but rather consistently small-scale engagement; less volume and more frequency, which means making that involvement constructive and have utility (vs. spending accrued awareness capital, if something like it exists).
  • What was it good for anyway? I understand that it primarily earned Tiger oodles of coin. But what was in it for his sponsors? Once Tiger's marital woes came to light they started backing away. These brands had previously made great hay about how Tiger was synonymous with their businesses; that he embodied themes that were somehow attached to their products and services, and thereby best illustrated what those themes were to the consuming public. After the 12th or so floozie achiever her 15 minutes of fame, Accenture swapped Tiger for an elephant. All the genetic, meaningful connections between Tiger and his corporate patrons were suddenly not so genetic or meaningful. They just evaporated. I know there's lots of marketing liturgy dedicated to proving the usefulness of creating or hiring celebrities, but the fact that such relationships are so disposable makes me question the very legitimacy of the concept. Were there better, more meaningful, and certainly more honest ways for Nike to illustrate its brand and product benefits? Of course. Tiger was just the easy shortcut to doing so, and cutting him loose is the proof. Plans to revive him as spokesperson would be further evidence that his relationship with the brand is only about money.

Now, the real problem could be that his golf just sucks right now, and that if/when he's winning major tournaments then his celebrity will rise once again. I doubt it. And it would be pretty dim if other brands addicted to a celebrity strategy were still adoring their purchased icons...and not coming to terms with how irrelevant such strategies can be.

Added: 18th November 2010


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