Since 2003, Tiger Woods has literally become the sole face, the strategic embodiment, the business essence of Accenture, the $22 billion global IT, outsourcing and business consultancy.
And why not? Woods' well-chronicled rise to his status as "best golfer in the world" has been legendary. He's been a force the sporting world hasn't seen before, a global icon with few if any equals, and a natural fit for Accenture's customer base (golf and business go together quite well, in case you needed reminding).
I happened to catch the Woods-Accenture partnership near its zenith at one of Accenture's global gatherings in April 2005. Woods had just won the Master's golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., the day before the conference started and was scheduled to speak to the attendees in Orlando, Fla. the day after the major competition. Though he looked a little weary, Woods came out and spoke to the delighted attendees. The crowd swooned. Accenture execs beamed. The timing was more than perfect, if that's possible.
As Accenture has pointed out in advertisements that target businesspeople in airports, run during professional golf telecasts and appear in glossy business magazines everywhere, Woods is "the world's ultimate symbol of high performance," and "he serves as a metaphor for our commitment to helping companies become high-performance businesses."
Woods' 1,000-watt smile and Nike-clad likeness have displaced (on purpose, it appears) any imagery of Accenture's top execs. (Quick: Who is Accenture's CEO and what does he look like? I hadn't a clue. It's William Green.)
In short, Accenture proclaims in its myriad marketing paraphernalia: "We know what it takes to be a Tiger."
A Thanksgiving to Forget
Everything about that slogan has now become a PR debacle, comedian's punch line and perplexing psychological examination since Thanksgiving 2009, when the soap opera surrounding Tiger Woods and his marriage exploded. (Apparently, like the rest of us, Accenture did not know what it actually takes, or what it fully means, to be Tiger Woods.)
Now, Woods and his roster of sponsors (which greatly aid his $1 billion net worth) are questioning just how much being associated with Tiger is actually worth. Which leaves the question: Will Tiger Woods' undeniable relation to Accenture's brand have any effect on Accenture's systems integration, outsourcing and IT consulting practices?
Forrester Research Senior Analyst Liz Herbert says that in the short term, Woods' public relations nightmare likely won't have any effect on Accenture's deal-making abilities with CIOs and their companies. She says, so far, that the topic has not come up once in talking with Forrester clients.
An important distinction exists, however, between Accenture's situation and, say, that of Satyam, the Indian computer services outsourcer which was rocked in January 2009 by scandal after its founder B. Ramalinga Raju admitted that Satyam's revenue and profits had been overstated for several years.
"This is not like the Satyam mess, which was directly linked with who they are [as a company]," Herbert says. "Satyam was clearly making false information, and that raises fundamental trust issues with buyers."
In other words: Tiger isn't going to be the one implementing your SAP ERP 6.0 upgrade or closing Accenture's books every quarter, so what does it really matter?
Nevertheless, the question remains as to whether Accenture should retain Woods for the long term--especially if his golf achievements are continually overshadowed by tabloid exploits. Herbert speculates that if bad things keep piling on Woods' shoulders and Accenture's period of plausible deniability runs out (as in: We were just as surprised as everyone else!), then Accenture may have to separate itself from Woods.
"Taking no action could end up hurting Accenture's image," Herbert says, though "it's still too early to tell." (Accenture has made no public comments on its future relationship with Woods, and its media relations did not respond to a request for an interview.)
Cut Tiger or Stay the Course?
An interesting post on the Big4.com, a community of employees who previously worked at consulting firms like Accenture, notes that Accenture is "a well-regarded, respected, squeaky-clean brand signifying class, ethics and high standards. It is a tough decision to disassociate from an advertising front man, but that front man has not kept his end of the bargain, and has caused injury to his wife and family," states the post. "Continuation will send a wrong message to Accenture's employees and clients that such behavior is not reprehensible since it can be justified to be monetarily beneficial."
But as branding experts and many others have pointed out, these types of transgressions can be smoothed over with time and strategic PR moves. There were many people cheering NFL player Michael Vick's return to the Atlanta Falcon's home stadium last weekend, where he played for years before he went to jail for running a dog-fighting ring.
As the Tiger-Accenture advertisement on the previous page ironically points out ("It's what you do next that counts"), it'll be very interesting to see what Tiger Woods and Accenture do next. Will they make a change? (You'll remember that the Accenture brand itself is relatively new; the name replaced the Andersen Consulting moniker in January 2001 after a tumultuous relationship with and separation from Arthur Andersen.)
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Coincidentally, just over a year ago, Accenture altered its Tiger campaign to address its customers' angst over the global recession, corporate downturns and market instability. In an Oct. 12, 2009, interview with BtoBonline, Teresa Poggenpohl, Accenture's executive director of global image, said: "We wanted to change the ads and evolve the message in light of the huge economic problems spreading globally...and [address] the uncertainty in the marketplace. We changed the images to show Tiger in more challenging situations. The launch ad has Tiger against a background of storm clouds, and the headline reads, 'Why high performers shine even when the sun doesn't.'"
Certainly, dark clouds are now covering the once-red-hot sun that Accenture basked under during Woods' reign as the world's most marketable and bankable athlete. The entire world will be watching Woods' and Accenture's upcoming performances--and whether those are together or apart.
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