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Smart in every sense of the word

I was 16 in 1984, as Seve pumped the air at on the 18th green at St Andrews. I noted the navy blue Slazenger V-neck, white shirt and white shoes and adapted my golf garb accordingly. Some of my friends were Faldo devotees, all Pringle jumpers and fly away fringe. My dad was a Palmer man.

For the last decade, the course has been choc full of Tiger’s Tribe: Nike’s Swoosh covering them from cap to toe. Each generation has it’s own style leaders. We see them and we follow them to the shops. It’s the basis of the golf business and, like the lucky horseshoe, it works whether you believe in it or not.

Look around the course today. Who do you see? My bet is that there are more than a few mini Ian Poulters strutting off the first tee: check trousers, sunglasses, visor, gel in the hair. Poulter has a tribe, for sure. But there’s more to it than that. I spoke to him the day after his top-10 finish at Lytham and we talked business models, a subject on which he is every bit as knowledgeable as he is on the golf swing.

“Greg Norman is a big role model, also Nick Faldo. If we go back a few years I would look at the Greg Norman Collection when I was working in the pro shop, helping to choose some of the kit for the shop. Going from that to playing with him, to becoming a good friend of his and got to know him really well. He inspires me to become better at golf and in business.”

Poulter has noted the difference between Greg Norman and Tiger Woods.

It comes down to ownership. Tiger is an extremely highly paid salesman for Nike. Nike owns the clothing, they run the factories and are borrowing Tiger’s fame to build their own brand. But Nike own the Intellectual Property: the Swoosh.

Compare that model to Greg Norman. Nobody’s arguing that The Great White Shark brand is as powerful or successful as Nike in sales terms. It’s not in the same street, but is possibly in the neighbourhood. The difference – and it’s a huge difference – is that Greg Norman owns his own brand.

He has the IP. He is Nike, not Tiger Woods.

When I spoke to Norman about this, he said something that has a direct application to Poulter. “As an athlete, you are a pass-through entity” he told me. “Agents were taking commission on an annual basis and if you had a three-year deal to represent someone they would take their money and you knew there would be another Greg Norman down the line. There was. He was Tiger Woods.”

The Shark brand is attached to a list of products, from golf courses, to grass seed, to beef, to wine, to trousers and those iffy panama hats. If Richard Branson’s Virgin did golf, it would do something similar. Making products is a 20th century business. It needs a factory and people and machinery. You need a lot of money to get started and the margins are low, meaning you have to sweat every asset and drive down costs.

The only difference between your polo shirt and Nike’s is the Swoosh. But it’s a heck of a difference. That difference is where the value is. That’s where Greg Norman is. And now, it is where Ian Poulter is, via his IJP Design clothing line. “I never wanted to be a sell through entity’,” said Norman when I last interviewed him, in Turkey last year. Now listen to Poulter, and note the similarities in tone and content.

“I understand the bigger picture. Looking at Greg I look at his business and relate it back to my business. There are not many people in the game of golf who are doing what we’re doing. Since Greg did it nobody else really has. Obviously there was Nicklaus and Palmer who do it in their own way with various products.

But I like to think I’ve got a little area in the market, where people can relate to me in terms of wanting to look good on the golf course and by really working hard at that we can create business that is successful.

“I wear exactly what they are able to go and buy in the pro shop. I’m a stock 34 waist, a medium shirt. If they are the same they can wear what I do. My leg length is 33 and a half, and that’s it, nothing’s tailored. They can go out and feel like I do when I go out on the course.”

“Greg started this way and then branched out in to course design, grass seed, wine, beef, all sorts of things.

Whether I go on to do that I don’t know, I’m sure we can look at other businesses, golf course design being an obvious one, separate fashion line on the back of IJP Design. When my golf game slows down I don’t want to wait. I want to help junior golfers and help them more and be able to have a business I can move straight into and earn the income I earn now.”

Watch out for Brand Poulter. He has two big things going for him. He has a tribe. And he owns the copyright. Smart, eh?

September 2012

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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