Out of the frying pan, into the fire?
That adage may well apply to TaylorMade-Adidas Golf as it relaunches its Maxfli brand this spring and takes a gamble to right its ball franchise.
When TMAG acquired Maxfli in January 2003, industry observers applauded the move, saying the venerable brand would boost sales more than TaylorMade balls, such as the defunct InerGel, ever could.
But for all of its short-term gains, the acquisition is creating vexing challenges for the Carlsbad, Calif., equipment and apparel company.
TMAG immediately netted Maxfli’s existing market share and inherited a surprise hit in the Noodle ball. But if something can be too much of a success, the Noodle is it.
The two-piece, $20-per-dozen ball reversed Maxfli’s sagging sales, and as of January, accounted for more than half of Maxfli’s 9.4 percent unit share at on- and off-course specialty shops. But in the process, the Noodle usurped Maxfli’s identity, transforming its image as a ball for serious players into one for high-handicappers.
That makeover was further reinforced when Maxfli’s most recent, top-of-the-line offering, the M3, flopped at retail and got axed from the product lineup late last year.
“There’s no question the Noodle has polarized our consumer,” says Bill Price, director of Maxfli’s golf products. “We made great gains with the Noodle, from beginners to recreational players. But we lost the player who thought of us as a serious brand.”
Company executives pin Maxfli’s state of affairs on previous management, but insist the situation is far from irreparable. They say they have a game plan that will allow Maxfli to retain Noodle lovers and win back elite golfers, too. Two new ball lines – the first Maxfli creations under TMAG’s stewardship – are the keys behind the strategy. TMAG plans to:
-Court serious players by resurrecting the Revolution, one of Maxfli’s more popular models, with three-piece balls that cost $25-$30 per dozen. The goal is to make the benefits of this construction more affordable and undercut competitors, who charge $10 more for similarly built balls.
-Stick with what sells by enhancing the original Noodle and offering more irreverent choices on the pasta menu: the Rotini, for more spin; and the Al Dente, for those who prefer a slightly firmer Noodle.
-Temporarily withdraw from the category’s highest-price plateau, $40 and over, and drop PGA Tour exposure and endorsements. Officials say they can make a super-premium ball, but concede Maxfli has lost the cachet to command such prices.
But in a ball market where Titleist has fortified its dominance and Nike and Callaway have gained credibility, some retailers say Maxfli’s plan may not work, and has the potential to backfire.
Like movie studios that release questionable sequels, TMAG is making itself vulnerable to Noodle excess; consumers already may have had their fill, some retailers say. And even if the Rotini and Al Dente do well, they say such success could hasten Maxfli’s brand deterioration among skilled players, compounding the problem rather than fixing it.
“They’re in a very challenging position,” says Fred Quandt, vice president and general merchandise manager for Golfsmith International, an Austin, Texas-based retailer and cataloger. “We’ll have another solid year with the Noodle, but it probably has peaked. . . . No product has taken root at $29.99 so I can understand their logic to go after that void. And it makes sense not to go into the high end. If you’ve got 40 bucks in your pocket, where are you going to put it?
“But you could also be sending the wrong message to the consumer that you can’t compete at that highest level.”
Maxfli officials acknowledge that’s a risk, but insist the best way to regain trial among better players is to offer exceptional value. A three-piece ball for $25 also paves the way for recreational players to upgrade without emptying their wallets.
“In the past that golfer had to double what he was paying to experiment with multilayer technology,” Price says.
With the Revolution’s three models – each designed to maximize performance at different swing speeds – Price says Maxfli “can dominate that middle (price) zone.”
The Noodle also has been enhanced, and its new models are intended to help Maxfli better cater to golfers’ varying demands and needs.
Some retailers fret that too many Noodle iterations may confuse consumers, but they dismiss concerns that the Noodle’s prominence would undermine sales of the new Revolution.
“That’s like saying I won’t buy a Corvette because GM makes the Geo,” says Pete Line, vice president and general manager of Carl’s Golfland, a major off-course retailer in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He adds that the Revolution will be able to attract 8- to 10-handicappers, but to recruit a “1 or 2, Maxfli will need Tour presence.”
Such support is a future consideration, Price says. For now, he says, Maxfli is ready to push forward, and he maintains the brand is operating from a position that other competitors would envy.
“The fact is, only three (ball) companies grew last year – Nike, Titleist and Maxfli,” he says. “We’re trying to find out who we are and what we are, and that’s a good thing.”