Wilson Golf struggling after 90 years

Wilson Sporting Goods turned 90 this year, and its golf division resembles a business geriatric. Net sales and market share contine to fall, and the once-proud purveyor of premium balls and clubs is better known for discounted, game improvement gear. Indeed, the stature of the brand with the red box “W” logo has dropped so precipitously that industry watchers openly have wondered how much longer it can survive.

But the Chicago-based equipment maker refuses to call it quits and has taken several steps to arrest its decline. A year ago, it reorganized to improve efficiency and shifted more of its club and bag assembly operations offshore.

Such moves simply set the foundation for a far-more ambitious undertaking: relaunching the venerable Wilson Staff brand to grab a greater piece of the higher-end, and higher-profit, market.

While Wilson officials have yet to provide many specifics about the initiative, they intend to marry a bevy of products for serious golfers – including the Fi5 forged and Pi5 performance irons – and a marketing campaign linked to the brand’s storied history, rich with endorsers such as Gene Sarazan, Arnold Palmer and Patty Berg.

The new strategy is a bold strike for a company that has at best appeared indecisive. But several issues, most likely beyond Wilson Golf’s control, lie before the company and threaten to halt its progress.

With each day that passes, making an aging brand contemporary and appealing to modern day consumers becomes a more difficult task. And it doesn’t help matters that Wilson’s parent company – Amer Group of Helsinki, Finland – doesn’t appear fully committed to spend the dollars needed to compete in the market today.

“I wouldn’t assert that Wilson Golf has disappeared from view,” says Casey Alexander, a senior analyst who closely follows the golf industry for Gilford Securities in New York. “But it is certainly not a brand that is on the tip of anyone’s tongue, and it will take a lot to get it back there again.”

Though Wilson knows where it wants to go, it remains unclear whether the company knows how to get there.

“We have yet to figure out our consumer strategy. . . ” said Angus Moir, Wilson Golf’s global business director. “We will be meeting with the people at Amer this fall and will decide what to do.”

But he made one point clear: “I can tell you that all of our advertising and marketing will be for Wilson Staff. We will not be doing anything on the Wilson brand alone.”

Such support includes switching the company’s 15 touring pros, including Padraig Harrington and Jesper Parnevik, to the Wilson Staff brand.

The commitment to Wilson Staff, however, does not mean abandonment of its sporting goods-caliber golf equipment. Rather, Moir has separated the golf division into premium and commercial segments, with Wilson Staff products in the former, and others, such as Deep Red woods and irons and Ultra balls, in the latter.

“We want to be known as a company that produces superior performance products for serious golfers while still catering to the casual, recreational golfer looking for game improvement equipment,” said Moir, adding that only one club in the new offerings will feature the rapidly aging Fat Shaft technology.

To tell the Wilson Staff story anew, the company has secured the services of brand image consultant, VSA Partners, which has been credited with aiding the turnaround of clients such as Harley Davidson and General Electric. The agency already has collaborated in bringing back the Wilson Staff shield, a modernized version of it, to serve as the brand’s icon.

But no amount of brand consulting can be successful if not backed by quality products. Moir says Wilson Golf has met this challenge with what he describes as the biggest launch in the company’s history.

The new iron lines, arguably, are the most important products, given Wilson’s rich heritage in the category.

The company also released a pair of new drivers - the Pd5 and Dd5 - that feature a Nano carbon crown with a titanium shell. A new line of Kirk Currie putters also is available.

In addition, Wilson improved its ball lineup with the Tx4, Px3 and Dx2 models. They feature a pan-head dimple core construction designed to deliver a more penetrating ball flight, and a Nano Tech core, which officials say, provides greater strength and consistency while maintaining a soft feel.

These products will begin shipping in late fall but are not expected to reach most retail outlets until spring 2005. As a result, retail feedback is limited, but early responses have been favorable.

“I was very pleasantly surprised by what I saw,” said Brian Morrison, director of golf at Olympia Fields Country Club outside Chicago. “The irons felt good, the Px3 ball had a lot of zip to it, and I thought the putters were exceptional.”

But Morrison throws out a quick caveat.

“The first step was to produce product that was good enough to put back into my shop, because it has been a while since they have had anything I could sell my members,” he said. “Now, Wilson has to make people aware of what they are putting out.”

Accomplishing that goal while competing against much larger marketing rivals will be difficult, Moir acknowledges. But he insists Wilson is poised to gain some ground.

“There are lots of guys spending a lot of money out there, on tour and in advertising, and we have to find a way through it all,” he said. “The percentage of sales that we spend in those areas will be about the same for next year. But I think that if we have a good reaction to this roll-out, it will put us in a better position to see about other things we can do to promote and market these new clubs and balls.”

And make a company that just turned 90 feel a whole lot fresher.

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