Ask most golfers directly whether the fact that a certain Tour player’s use of specific brands or models of equipment makes a difference in their purchase decisions, and you’ll likely get a negative response or flat out denial. After all, it seems intuitive to golf fans and rank-and-file amateurs alike, that those at the apex of the game play on such a different level and have their equipment consistently tweaked and customized for specific course set-ups and conditions that they face each week.
As I’ve actually heard in some form or another during focus groups and one-on-one interviews over the years, “Those guys could stick it close with an anvil. We don’t play that way.” And while I agree with the “we don’t play that way” statement, years of equipment research make me beg to differ regarding the notion that Tour player equipment validation doesn’t impact consumer purchase decisions. It most certainly does.
While not denying the incredible skill of Tour players, one of the unique qualities that golf possesses relative to other sports, is that the typical amateur can play with the same equipment as the pros, and in some cases, they can actually equal the results of those professionals in relatively similar conditions, be it for just a few shots per round. I emphasize relatively because course conditions and set up for Tour events are not the same that you and I play.
This is amplified at major championships. During my nearly eight years as a PGA of America employee, I had the dubious pleasure of teeing it up at a couple of PGA Championship sites on the Monday after the tournament. Let’s just say that the results weren’t particularly pretty. When I worked for Golf Digest Companies, we ran a promotion called the U.S. Open Challenge, where “lucky” readers got to take on the U.S. Open site with a single digit handicap celebrity on the Monday after the championship. No one came close to breaking 90.
So, one might intuitively conclude that actually buying the same or similar equipment as the pros will never yield the same results. But that has not stopped us from trying, nor should it. The proliferation of custom fitting options, and the evolution of golf retail “try and buy” programs, like Roger Dunn’s (California) 90-Day exchanges, have created a significant segment of “constant shoppers” who are always in the market for the latest and greatest equipment.
Our research has estimated this constant shopper group to be as large as a third of the most engaged player segments. It’s simply easier today for anyone to tinker and buy a better game, to a point. And with greater access to tournament coverage, the relative media weight of elite players promoting their equipment is at an all-time high.
Our research has also consistently shown that Tour player validation plays a meaningful role in creating instant credibility and consideration for new product. Clearly the OEMs agree, or the dollars spent on endorsement deals would not be at the levels that they have climbed to over the past several decades.
But back to the attribution question with which I opened this discussion: how, you may ask, am I so sure that despite the protestations and denials of the impact of endorsement, that such marketing investment yields a positive return? The simple answer is that we’ve actually proven it in a number of studies.
Let me begin by saying, that you can’t ask the question in the way that I posed it above: Does XYZ Tour pro’s endorsement of ABC equipment make you more likely to buy ABC equipment?”
Our brains aren’t wired in a way to rationally answer that. Efficacy attribution needs to be tested more subtly and that’s part of the art and science of well-constructed marketing research. Instead, we use a variety of research tools like experimental design or cognitive association.
In the former approach, two otherwise identical target population groups are exposed to marketing materials that are also identical with the one exception being that one group receives collateral referencing specific player usage and the other does not. Each group is then presented with a variety of attributional and attitudinal questions, and the gaps in results are often quite different, particularly when the creative messaging is presented in an effective way (That’s another variable that we test for, but I’ll spare you the gory details.).
Turning to cognitive association, I’ll again leave it to our clients to appreciate the nuance of this type of research design. But on a baseline level, consider that while you might not agree that knowing that player X plays OEM Y’s clubs makes a difference in your purchase decision, the mere fact that you know of player X’s association with that brand, is actually impacting your perceptions of it on an often strong but subconscious level.
To cite a curious, no longer relevant example, we found that when Tiger Woods endorsed Nike Golf equipment, the impact was dichotomous. For some, Tiger personified what Nike stood for across their broader product portfolio, and that was a positive. For others, the brand was perceived as impostors, looking to buy their way into the market, unlike “purely golf-centric” brands which were perceived as more authentic and less mercenary.