Tiger Woods and the Economics of Redemption

Tiger Woods' marital woes are spreading from the pages to US Weekly to the pages of Forbes. James Suroweicki explains in his newest New Yorker column:

A recent issue of Forbes features a full-page ad for the consulting firm Accenture with Tiger Woods striding through tall grass. The tagline reads, "The road to high performance isn't always paved." To which the obvious rejoinder these days is "Sometimes it runs straight into a fire hydrant."

The Accenture ad I recall seeing in so many airports is a tall photo of Tiger chipping out of the rough with a slogan: "What you did 10% ... What you do next 90%." Now that "What you did" line practically screams implication. Ditto for Accenture's branded "Go Ahead, Be a Tiger" campaign. So it's no surprise that Accenture is now the most prominent company to drop Woods as a sponsor, and for good reason. Accenture's ads didn't feature Tiger Woods. They were Tiger Woods. And now they're all artifacts of innuendo.

To me, it's remarkable to me how closely the Tiger Woods episode parallels Kobe Bryant. The LA Lakers star was also a teenage phenom with international roots (he's named after Japanese beef, grew up in Italy, and speaks Italian and Spanish fluently). Like Tiger, Kobe found immediate success in the league, winning three early championships. Like Tiger, Kobe cultivated an image as a superstar on the court and a consummate professional off the court, despite grumblings with Shaquille O'Neal, he was largely polite, soft-spoken and downright boring in his press conferences. It was that super-talented/squeaky-clean image that set him up for deals with McDonalds and Nike and Nutella, and it was the contrast between that image and the allegations of rape that devastated his sponsorships.

Now that Tiger is taking an indefinite break from golf, it will be interesting to see how the story lines match up. Despite another Lakers championship last year, Suroweicki suggests Kobe isn't raking in endorsements like his talent deserves. That observation needs some qualifying. First Kobe's no longer the most exciting player in the league (that would be LeBron James). Tiger will still be better than Phil Mickelson next spring. Second Kobe now has deals with Nike, VitaminWater and Sony. His jersey remains one of the best-selling in the league. His best seasons have all come after his trial. He's really doing just fine, thanks.

Tiger's brand is going to take a hit, and in the short term companies are going to follow Accenture out the door. Marketing is image, and Tiger's image is in the dumps right now. But I'm not so down on his future as a sponsor. America has the attention span of tsi-tsi fly. The only thing we love more than scandal is redemption. So Tiger, what you did was terrible. But the 90% is really all about what you do next.