Matt Williams: what Nike and McIlroy can tell us about working for long-term brand success

I couldn’t muster the energy to stay up on Sunday night to watch Rory McIlroy’s amazing US PGA Championship triumph, but I really wish I had.

251773_1280x720The victory capped an incredible few weeks for the Northern Irishman, who becomes the third youngest player ever to win four majors, behind Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. That’s pretty illustrious company.

Among those who would have stayed up to watch McIlroy triumph would be Nike’s marketing department. And they’d have been looking on rather smugly.

This was Nike’s bet paying off. Their $250 million 10-year gamble that shocked the world when it was struck in January last year.

Few were surprised that Nike wanted McIlroy – he’d been hotly tipped from an early age – but the sum raised a fair few eyebrows. This deal was substantially bigger than any contract Nike had signed with Tiger Woods….or indeed that Adidas had ever signed with David Beckham.

Initial teething problems did nothing to stem the scepticism. In fact ‘teething problems’ may have been putting it mildly – McIlroy struggled in the period following the deal, culminating in a disastrous 14-over par finish at the US Open. In six months he’d lost his world No.1 status and hadn’t won a tournament using Nike clubs.

The press loved it. Particularly in March, when McIlroy walked off the course in the middle of the ninth hole of the Honda Classic, withdrawing from the tournament because of a ‘tooth ache.’

“I’m just in a bad place mentally,” McIlroy told reporters. Who obviously completely ignored that and placed the blame squarely on the dodgy Nike clubs McIlroy had taken on. This would never have happened if Rory had stuck with his beloved Titleist clubs, instead of chasing the money and lustre of Nike.

Nike were being vilified, but they knew this deal wasn’t a quick win. This was a long and lucrative par five, not a fast and furious par three. They rode out the storm. Now few are questioning the decision.

It’s not the first time a brand has put up with short-term pain for long-term gain. In fact it’s not even the first time Nike has had to face such decisions. The company stuck with Tiger Woods through his ‘issues,’ despite more than half a dozen partners dropping him within weeks of the car accident that sparked the 2009 scandal.

For the brands that did get rid, it was a quick PR win, an opportunistic open goal to show that they were a company with strict morals and wouldn’t tolerate sexual shenanigans (although it should still be noted that Nike knows when it needs to take the high-ground too – it terminated its relationship with Lance Armstrong soon enough). For those that committed to Woods, well things were never quite the same, but they were still celebrating last year when Woods briefly topped the PGA Championship leaderboard, and for Nike he’s once again fronting hugely successful YouTube ads (albeit this time with Rory by his side).

The whole short-term v long-term approach is an important lesson in advertising. I was following an interesting debate recently on the ‘death of the brand mascot,’ asking why we see so few new Tony the Tigers, Honey Monsters or Smash Martians any more, and part of the conclusion was that brands no longer think long-term.

And why would they? We keep getting told that the average tenure for a marketing director is 18 months (although a recent Wall Street Journal article suggested that you’d probably be more correct if you double that figure). But either way, if you are constantly looking over your shoulder, or preparing to work somewhere else in 2015, are you going to be telling your agency “make me a campaign that might not make too many waves now, but will establish a brand positioning that’ll reap rewards for the next marketing director and for years to come,” Or will you be saying “make me something that’s brilliant NOW. That’ll make me look good and I can point to it on my CV when I shift into my next job in twelve months. Who gives a stuff about the next guy?”

Of course, you’d like to think that the industry wasn’t as black and white as this. And in most cases it’s not. But we’ve all seen it happen. Luckily, as the sales execs at Nike no doubt found when McIlroy holed his final putt at Valhalla on Monday, success tastes that little bit sweeter when you’ve had to work hard for it.

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