2006: Cross-country campaign fits Ping

During much of the 1990s, Warren Mapé would leave his job as a logistics analyst at General Electric in Toronto and go to his second job working at a driving range. He would close down the range at 10 p.m., then beat balls with his Ping irons into the early morning hours.

At this point, you might be asking yourself: Who is Warren Mapé? But you almost certainly already know his face, if not his name.

In late 2000, Mapé landed a job with Ping Canada, and through an unlikely series of events, he has become the face of the brand as the star of its ubiquitous, distinctive “Drive Across America” ad campaign. In it, Mapé barnstorms across the country, bringing Ping’s gospel of custom-fit equipment to, among others, politicos in Washington, D.C., investment bankers on Wall Street, minor leaguers in Kansas City, even a testy cop patrolling the desert.

“(The campaign) reinforces that they’re the custom-fitting king and always have been,” says Jeff Caraway, vice president of merchandising for Austad’s Golf, a major Midwest specialty retailer.

This week marks the launch of the latest round of commercials in the campaign that has coincided with a pronounced resurgence in Ping’s sales.

According to Golf Datatech LLC, Ping’s unit share of the metalwood market, a weak product category for the company until recent years, has more than quadrupled since late 2003 to 7.4 percent, and its iron share has more than doubled to 11.3 percent. Ping’s putter business, which had declined sharply in the early part of the decade in the face of Odyssey’s dominance, has rebounded to 16 percent, approaching the level it enjoyed six years ago.

There’s no way to gauge with any specificity the impact an advertising campaign has on sales, nor does Pat Loftus, Ping’s vice president of sales and marketing, have any interest in “measuring consumers and trying to isolate and drill into” the campaign’s impact. And to be sure, an ad campaign alone won’t convince consumers to buy bad products.

But there’s little doubt among Ping officials that “Drive Across America” has proved a unique vehicle for hammering home the Ping club-fitting story and supporting a recent string of hit products. Ping’s comeback can be traced to the introduction of the G2 product line in late 2003, and several retailers say they have seen no slowdown in momentum since the successor G5 line was introduced last fall.

While the TV spots often have been amusing, Pete Samuels, Ping’s director of advertising, notes “there have been a lot of funny commercials that haven’t helped the bottom line.” The company estimates that about 70 percent of consumers who use its equipment have been custom-fit, well above the industry average.

“We’ve always talked about doing commercials only we can do,” Samuels says. “We always want to talk about fitting, and the van is the icon that says, ‘We fit clubs.’ ”

The quirky ad campaign – which most recently followed Mapé and his Ping fitting van to Mount St. Helens, a Seattle ferry, the University of California campus in Berkeley and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco – has been a whimsical, sometimes hilarious, take on the company’s real-life club-fitting program, which now includes five vans that scour the country for golfers to fit with new Ping equipment.

(Each van costs a little more than $100,000, having been outfitted with the same equipment used at Ping’s headquarters. “It’s a portable, 2201 W. Desert Cove fit,” Loftus says, referring to the company’s address.)

At Riverview Golf Course in Mesa, Ariz., not far from Ping’s Phoenix headquarters, Jim Mooney, the director of golf, says his Ping sales “have been the best I’ve seen this year and last, and I’ve been with them 30-some years.” Mooney, who says he was one of Ping founder Karsten Solheim’s “original guinea pigs” testing clubs, notes that a visit from a Ping fitting van in January produced “the best fitting day I’ve ever had.”

At Austad’s, Caraway says, “Their resurrection has been, one, refreshing, and two, pretty dramatic.”

After several years of weak Ping sales, he says, “They’ve basically doubled their business with us over the past year and a half.”

As it turns out, Mapé, who manages fitting and brand promotion for Ping Canada, “did the actor-waiter thing” in his early 20s, landing a few television roles in productions being filmed in Toronto before moving on to GE. But he didn’t land the role in the Ping campaign until the day of the first shoot in fall 2004, when colleague James Uttecht fell ill. (“The classic Wally Pipp-Lou Gehrig story,” Samuels deadpans.)

Using video as opposed to film has allowed Ping and its advertising firm, The Martin Agency of Richmond, Va., to shoot the spots quickly – the four new commercials were shot in four days – and at about a third of the cost.

The spots have a free-flowing, documentary feel, and Mapé, though far removed from his acting days, has thrived in a format that encourages ad-libbing. And when he returns to his office after shoots, he finds he sometimes has messages waiting for him.

“A lot of people call and request (a fitting from) the guy in the commercial,” he says.





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