2002: Bump in the road for Mizuno

If there has been one constant in the ever-changing world of golf equipment, it has been Mizuno’s annual claim of being the most-played irons on the PGA Tour.

But as 2002 draws to an end, even such industry gimmes are no more.

Under siege from competitors who have unleashed a slew of forged offerings – and unprecedented financial enticements to players who use them – some of Mizuno’s Tour loyalists have abandoned the Japanese company’s gear, ending its eight-year reign as the preferred choice of the professional elite. (Darrell Survey results, p51).

The streak’s end may very well mark a watershed moment that defines Mizuno’s performance in the United States, either cementing what some say is its unfulfilled potential or revitalizing efforts to bring the company the commercial success it has long coveted.

Naysayers say the rivals who have stepped up efforts in the forged irons category – including Titleist, TaylorMade, Nike, Hogan and MacGregor – could chase Mizuno out of its entrenched niche.

But Mizuno officials hardly are panicking. They say their steady, if not flashy, dedication to making the best forgings in the world – coupled with new initiatives to expand custom fitting and broaden their product lineup – will fortify their position in the U.S. market. While dwarfed by premium marketshare leader Callaway, Mizuno has maintained its modest, yet noteworthy, 4 percent share at on- and off-course retailers for the past three years. (A publicly traded company in Japan, Mizuno doesn’t disclose financial results for its sporting goods divisions, including golf.)

“We really don’t sit around and spend a lot of time worrying about getting overrun,” says Dick Lyons, vice president and general manager of Mizuna USA’s golf division in Norcross, Ga. “We understand we have to do a better job getting our message to more people. But we also tend to have a long-term view. This is not a company that’s going to suddenly say, ‘We have to double sales next year.’

“It’s important for Mizuno’s global success that Mizuno be successful in the States. And we’re going to do that by putting one foot ahead of the other. That’s the approach that has paid off for us. We’ve grown sales each of the last three years. It’s not a long list of companies that can say that.”

And Mizuno officials don’t view current market dynamics as harmful. Their spin: As major brands increase advertising to tout their forgings, they raise awareness of the entire category, helping Mizuno sales.

“The exposure from the additional entries has increased the number of people looking,” Lyons says. “And when they compare our products to some of the new entries, we stand up very well.”

Not everyone, however, sketches such a rosy future for the company. Some retailers caution Mizuno about acting like an “ostrich with its head stuck in the ground,” oblivious to changes in the marketplace.

“In the short term, the pie may expand incrementally, but eventually there’s going to be attrition (in the high- performance forged category), and Mizuno potentially could be one of the losers,” says Pete Line, vice president and general manager of Carl’s Golfland, a major off-course retailer in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. “I think Mizuno has to be very concerned about who’s pursuing them. There are some serious players back in the mix.”

Another problem for Mizuno: It is vastly outspent by competitors on the marketing front.

“The American culture is one of buying brands, that’s what we do. You can’t just build a great product and expect people to come buy it,” says Leigh Bader, co-owner of Joe and Leigh’s Discount Golf Pro Shop in South Easton, Mass. “In terms of branding and positioning, what has inhibited Mizuno’s growth is its inability to tell its story with a loud voice.”

But Bader and other retailers acknowledge that Mizuno has – by producing top-notch performance irons time and time again – developed a “cult following” of consumers who talk about and use the company’s products with reverence.

Adding to this group is Mizuno’s primary goal.

Though there are no plans for television commercials, Mizuno has retained a new advertising agency – Huey/Paprocki in Atlanta – to create a print campaign that exhibits “a little more passion about what we do,” Lyons says. While it’s a seemingly minor change, it’s a considerable departure from Mizuno’s tired and unoriginal copy that simply touted its No. 1 status on Tour.

Says Lyons: “We’ve never out-marketed anyone from a spending standpoint, and I would even say from a creativity standpoint. We’re trying to attract the person who is familiar with Mizuno or the golfer who should have a feeling about Mizuno. We’re not trying to get miles from where our base is.”

Perhaps most significant in Mizuno’s quest to recruit like-minded consumers is its aggressive plan to expand custom fitting.

While the number of green-grass accounts offering custom fitting for Mizuno clubs has remained flat at 800 since 1999, custom-fitting sales as a percentage of Mizuno’s total sales have increased to 35 percent from 18 percent during the same period. Company officials attribute the gain to increased consumer awareness of custom fitting in general, improved account service and new game improvement irons, such as the forged MX-20, that have helped stretch Mizuno’s reach to golfers other than scratch players.

Mizuno debuted its U.S. custom-fitting program in 1997 with 180 accounts and rapidly expanded it to its current level three years ago. “Unfortunately, we had to constrain growth since then because we weren’t able to service and provide those accounts as well as they would like us to,” Lyons concedes.

However, Mizuno officials say they’ve diligently worked at overcoming such inadequacies, including cross-training assembly employees to help build custom clubs when demand is high. As a result, the company has the necessary infrastructure to accommodate the additional 200 to 400 custom- fitting accounts it plans to add next year, Lyons says.

In addition to the popular MX-20, Mizuno also has added the MP-30 irons – a half-cavity designed to be more playable yet promising the workability of a muscle-back blade like Mizuno’s flagship MP-33.

On the other end of the spectrum is the company’s least-expensive irons, the MX-15, a cast set that has a low center of gravity to help get the ball airborne and sells for $499. Mizuno also has a new offering for women: the Tava irons (6i-SW) and woods (driver-7).

“Mizuno’s products across the board are deeper and better than what a lot of people give them credit for,” Bader says. “They offer far more than a blade for the very best players.”

It may take a while, but Lyons says that message will spread – squashing any notion that Mizuno is on the way down.

“There’s no reason with our iron lineup that we shouldn’t have 2 to 3 times the size share that we do have,” he says. “And if we do that, we’re going to be one of the players in the industry.”








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