2005: Business - A real commercial break

When The Golf Channel this fall airs its “Big Break IV” reality show, pitting Americans against Europeans, viewers will notice that the opponents have at least one thing in common.

They all will be using Bridgestone gear – from caps to bags to balls. And make no mistake, it’s no coincidence.

Bridgestone, one of the show’s sponsors, has paid for the right to “blend” its products into the program and the guarantee that this promotional effort – unlike commercials – won’t be fast-forwarded, or worse, erased.

In the age of TiVo and other digital video recorders, which enable viewers to skip commercials, advertisers are facing a sea change in marketing. Television, once their most reliable medium, is changing radically. That, combined with the Internet’s explosive growth, is altering companies’ advertising strategies – and spending – in a big way. In many cases, they’re increasingly focusing on product placement such as Bridgestone’s partnership with the “Big Break,” or turning to various Web marketing vehicles, including microsites, to tout specific products.

Golf entities – as well as companies, such as Anheuser-Busch Cos. that market their goods through golf – have made this advertising shift. They say these tools can be more engaging, more informative and more cost-efficient than conventional TV spots or print ads. But not everyone has jumped on the new marketing bandwagon. Critics say tactics such as product placement have their own flaws, including difficulty measuring reach or impact.

The bottom line: Few, if any, advertisers seem to know what the right marketing mix is. But they’re all experimenting to discover it.

“Traditional advertising – which I categorize as (TV) spots, dots (dot coms) and pages – are all part of the mix, but they’re not enough,” says Cindy Davis, Nike Golf’s general manager. “The world has changed . . . you need to complement traditional advertising with other unique strategies.”

As golf companies map out their 2006 marketing budgets, they’ll be directing more attention than ever to the Internet. They intend to spend more money on projects designed to reach consumers in a more intimate, one-on-one manner.

Nike Golf, for example, has developed an interactive section at nikegolf.com to better explain the performance features of its new Sphere React apparel. By pointing and clicking, a user is taken on a virtual round of golf during which video demonstrates how the apparel breathes to release body heat. The results of such efforts have been “very compelling and very impactful,” says Davis, noting that golfers increasingly are visiting the Web to learn more about products before making purchases.

How important has the Web become?

Dan Murphy, Bridgestone’s director of marketing, says the Web is changing the very role of print advertising. He says Bridgestone’s agency, J. Walter Thompson, preaches that the function of print advertising in the 21st century is simply to lead consumers to the Web.

“That’s where you really do your sales pitch,” Murphy says.

But it has been difficult to determine thus far if that online pitch actually leads to sales, says Pete Samuels, Ping’s director of marketing.

During the past three years, Ping has doubled its Internet spending, which now accounts for 5 percent to 6 percent of the company’s total marketing budget. It created e-mail blast campaigns to steer recipients to microsites for its G2 irons and Doc17 putter. Nearly 20 percent of the recipients clicked through to the sites. The next step for Ping is to track sales.

“That’s one thing that’s so intriguing about the Web,” Samuels says. “It seems like you could probably measure that a little easier.”

Likewise at FootJoy, spending on Web initiatives grew “substantially” in 2004, according to Andy Jones, vice president of marketing and apparel. The reason? A growing concern about the deterioration of TV as an advertising medium.

“There is still value in commercials,” says Jones, but he adds that FootJoy evaluates the effectivness of television “virtually on a day-to-day basis.”

Product placement is nothing new, but its explosive use – especially in other industries – likely will win over many golf disciples.

Companies for years have worked to meld their products into various forms of entertainment, including TV programming, sporting events and the movies. Golf companies are no stranger to the practice. More than two decades ago, Ping benefited from the exposure it received in the movie “Caddyshack,” which featured “Dr. Beeper” toting a Ping staff bag. Back then, movie studios that needed props – say clubs – would seek freebies from equipment manufacturers. But now companies are more than willing to pay for the exposure.

According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, Procter & Gamble, one of the country’s largest advertisers, is planning to cut its cable commercial spending by 25 percent next season and shift much of that money into product placement deals.

P&G’s shift underscores current advertising trends. According to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, a unit of Nielsen Media Research, TV’s top 10 programs featuring product placements accounted for 12,867 promotions in the first quarter of 2005. By comparison, the top 10 shows accounted for 23,526 product placements for all of 2004.

And while advertisers were slow to integrate products into the sports arena, that has changed quickly, says Rich Thomaselli, sports business reporter at Advertising Age.

Longtime golf sponsor Anheuser-Busch, for example, has been maximizing its product-placement opportunities. During The Golf Channel’s “Big Break III,” the company wove its brand into the show in a variety of ways. The company showcased Michelob Ultra; filmed the program at the Kingsmill Resort and Spa, an Anheuser-Busch property; and awarded the winner an invitation to its LPGA event, the Michelob Ultra Open at Kingsmill.

“The new consumer doesn’t want to be blatantly marketed to, so if it’s integrated and placed well, you become part of the action,” says Tony Ponturo, Anheuser-Busch’s vice president of global media and sports marketing.

So satisfied was Anheuser-Busch with this first campaign, it already has signed another product-placement deal for the upcoming ladies-only “Big Break V.”

Now, Bridgestone is following suit – even though it acknowledges that product placement has its drawbacks. Murphy says the biggest challenge is measuring the number of consumers who take notice of the placed products.

“An advertising salesman would argue that you can’t measure it – what are you buying for your cost?” Murphy says.

But to defend the practice, Murphy counters with a question of his own: “They can’t TiVo it, either physically or mentally, can they?”






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