2005: From towels to tees, rising above the clutter

Like many golf executives, Rick Sheppard closely guards his company’s trade secrets. He notes that even his UPS driver had to sign a nondisclosure form before making deliveries.

“We have some unique technologies,” Sheppard says.

But Sheppard isn’t developing revolutionary golf clubs or balls. He’s selling golf towels. As president of Devant Ltd., Sheppard’s mission is to create “a high-tech alternative to the cotton towel.” To many, using the terms “high-tech” and “towel” in the same sentence might seem odd, but not to Sheppard, whose Monroe, N.C., company holds 18 patents.

Towels might seem like commodities – one is as good as the next, the only difference is price. But that’s heresy to Sheppard. Devant, like a handful of accessory companies sprinkled around the golf industry, is seeking to rise above otherwise commoditized accessory categories, a skill that major consumer-products companies mastered long ago.

As Steve Asman, the uber-salesman who founded Gustbuster umbrella company, says, “I want (people to think) Kleenex instead of tissue, Vaseline instead of petroleum jelly, Gustbuster instead of umbrellas.”

Arguably the golf industry prototype for this marketing strategy was Softspikes, which created the plastic cleat category a decade ago, then became virtually synonymous with the category in consumers’ minds.

“They’ve dominated their category to the point that I don’t think anyone knows what the alternative is,” says Charlie Davis, buyer for Golf Galaxy, a specialty retailer based in Eden Prairie, Minn. He notes that consumers sometimes pick up cleats from other brands and refer to them as “Black Widows,” a popular Softspikes product.

That’s not unlike Kleenex, which, appropriately enough, is a brand that Rick Oleksyk, president of Pride Sports, Softspikes’ parent company, used to market at Kimberly-Clark Corp. Oleksyk says Softspikes initially gained prominence because of a “perfect storm” of marketing magic: a name that captured the essence of the category, a first-to-market position and an ability to fund research and development. By 1996, FootJoy, which controls more than 50 percent of the golf footwear market, had adopted Softspikes as original equipment under an exclusive arrangement.

“I see Softspikes as an added value to our brand,” says Jim Connor, president of FootJoy. “There’s a great deal of equity in the Softspikes name that people associate with the innovator in the category, and you could say there’s a great deal of creativity.”

Oleksyk, who joined Pride Sports in 1998, is carrying on the strategy first laid out by the company’s former chief executive, Jon Hyman. That includes spending record annual amounts on research and development in 2004 and again this year.

“We’re smart enough not to rest on being first to market and having a generic name,” Oleksyk says.

Now Pride Sports is trying to replicate the Softspikes success with golf’s ultimate commodity – the wooden golf tee. Its new Professional Tee System includes color-coded tees in four lengths, with markings to help golfers tee the ball at the same height on each shot. On the initial launch, Pride has refused to sell the product in bulk to golf shops, reasoning that the PTS tees’ distinctive packaging – a key element in the Softspikes formula – will raise brand awareness among consumers.

Others have taken notice.

“We looked at the model Softspikes was able to bring to market, and we felt that we could learn a lot from them,” says B.J. Maloy, who founded the start-up tee company, Evolve Golf.

Specifically, Maloy saw the need to generate trial at the green-grass level to demonstrate that his biodegradable Epoch tees reduce maintenance costs for golf courses – much like Softspikes did – and offer a modest performance benefit on tee shots.

Much like manufacturers of clubs and balls, these accessory brands talk technology. Sharpie markers – which senior brand manager Julie Hermes notes, in only a mild overstatement, can be found “in every golfer’s bag” – can tout about 60 patents since first being introduced more than 40 years ago.

“Consumers are purchasing performance and innovation, and they’re willing to pay for that,” Hermes says.

Sharpie also recently sought to cement its position in golf by becoming an official sponsor of the PGA Tour, complementing its endorsement deals with Chad Campbell and David Toms.

That sort of brand awareness carries weight, particularly with avid players who want the top brands, regardless of product category. Davis notes that it might be more lucrative to sell lesser-known accessory brands or private-label alternatives, but “from a retailers’ perspective, you want to carry the brands that people want.”

At Devant, Sheppard is determined to make his towels products that consumers want and ask for by name. Sheppard this year hired a marketing firm, a first for the 30-year-old company his father founded, to help promote Devant’s new Dri-Tac towel, which was 21⁄2 years in development.

“I can list on one hand the (towels) that have had a dramatic impact, and this is one of them,” says the man friends sometimes simply call “the towel guy.”

Made of microfiber, Dri-Tac is seven times more absorbent than a standard cotton towel and has three times the wicking properties, according to Sheppard, who’s convinced he’s hit on something big.

“It may sound like I’m really into towels, and I am,” says Sheppard. “Sometimes I get carried away. But our goal is to do something very unique.”

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