Harvard Business Online

Tiger Woods and the Decline of Celebrity Endorsements


Posted on The Change Master: December 14, 2009 10:30 AM

Golf champion Tiger Woods no longer represents global consulting and technology services firm Accenture, as of December 13. Accenture is the first of Woods' corporate sponsors to pull out of the relationship completely. A day earlier, Gillette announced a suspension of Woods' marketing appearances for an unspecified period.

For anyone missing two weeks of headlines, here's a recap. Golf champion Woods crashed his car near his Florida home after what appeared to be a major league (oops, wrong sport) fight with his wife over alleged infidelities. At first Woods denied any marital misconduct, using the first line of defense of many public figures caught in a sand trap, which was to lie about it. Then other women surfaced with firm evidence of Woods' affairs, for a total of 13, and Woods told the world that he had made mistakes. On December 11, he announced he is taking a mega-mulligan—a leave of absence from golf to repair his marriage.

Though Accenture doesn't sell anything to consumers, it put itself in the public eye with its "Go ahead, be a Tiger" ad campaign. Working for Accenture since 2004, Woods seemed a plausible long-term choice. His consistently stellar athletic achievements and mixed racial heritage symbolize the best of a global economy. Now his departure could mark a seismic shift in corporate branding and marketing approaches.

Some analysts see Accenture's announcement as purely pragmatic, not moral or ethical. Woods' indefinite leave of absence from golf would introduce too many uncertainties into Accenture's ad campaigns, one commentator told AP. Moreover, Woods is rapidly losing cachet. A poll reported by Bloomberg found that Woods has already dropped from 6th to 24th in popularity among consumers.

But I see the values dimension front and center. Accenture has made a strong commitment to values-based corporate citizenship. Its aspirations require disengagement from a tainted celebrity.

During the past decade, ethical misconduct of many kinds has caused the decline of the cult of the celebrity CEO and the fall of many a celebrity politician. Now we are watching the decline and fall of the just plain celebrity. This is not just about the type of indiscretion—at least, some sports fans would say, Woods didn't take steroids. Instead, the significance of the Woods affair is the challenge it poses to a major marketing convention: use of celebrities to sell products and services instead of featuring the product or service's value for users (and the values that guide its production).

In Accenture's case, I know about its outstanding reputation and work for clients from former or future Accenture employees passing through my classrooms. (I recently gave a lecture to an Accenture group.) But I was puzzled about the little knowledge gleaned about that good work from ads in which Tiger Woods stands alone swinging a golf club. For one thing, Accenture professionals practice in teams, not as individuals, and promote teamwork in the organizations they serve.

Unlike Accenture, Nike makes a product that Woods and other athletes actually use—shoes. Green-values-oriented Nike is sticking with Woods for the moment, appearing to be rehabilitation-minded and comeback-oriented in other instances too. This fall, Apple, Excelon, and other companies dropped their memberships in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in disagreement with what they saw as the Chamber's foot-dragging on climate change policy. Nike kept its membership while resigning from the Chamber board in order to work for change from within, executives said. But the Chamber incident, too, is evidence that companies increasingly see that their values must be reflected consistently in every decision they make, every marketing campaign they run, and every partnership they form.

I have no insider information about what Gillette will do next, just a guess. From my in-depth research on its corporate parent Procter & Gamble (P&G) and conversations with chairman and CEO Bob McDonald, I predict that Tiger Woods will not reappear. P&G takes its values very seriously. McDonald has said publicly that representing the company extends to ethical private conduct off the job, not just compliance during work hours.

P&G brand guardians should be glad P&G invented Mr. Clean. A cartoon spokesperson doesn't have a personal life involving ethical dilemmas. Mr. Clean eliminates messes rather than getting into them. And Mr. Clean speaks to consumers about what his product does for them, rather than how many tournaments he wins. That kind of communication about value and values could be the post-Tiger tiger to catch.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter holds the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School, where she specializes in strategy, innovation, and leadership for change. Her strategic and practical insights have guided leaders of large and small organizations worldwide for over 25 years. The former Editor of Harvard Business Review (1989-1992), Professor Kanter has been named to The Times of Londonlist of the "50 most powerful women in the world".

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