By now, you’re probably familiar with Tigergate. Who isn’t? The news
and gossip is plastered everywhere online. The paparazzi and celeb gossip press
couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present than the one they’ve
received with the scandal that has erupted around the world’s first
billionaire athlete.

For those in the marketing world, everyone is waiting to see what will
happen to Tiger, his brand and the brands of the companies that sponsor
him. Will the public forgive him? Will his sponsors?

Clearly, nobody reasonable is going to believe that sponsors like Nike or Gillette, for instance, endorse the behavior Tiger is alleged to have engaged in. But this isn’t traditional advertising. In the case of traditional advertising, I’ve already argued that the vast majority of consumers aren’t so naive as to believe that a television commercial or banner ad is an ‘endorsement‘. In the case of Glenn Beck, for instance, you’re going to have a hard time finding a reasonable person who truly believes that a commercial that appears on FOX News during his time slot represents an endorsement of his views.

Yet when an athlete lands in trouble, the math gets complicated for sponsors. Already, we’ve seen people poke fun at a recent Accenture print ad featuring Tiger. And GM, owner of Tiger’s former sponsor, Buick, has found its brand caught in the drama as the now-infamous Cadillac Escalade Tiger crashed was on loan to Tiger from GM.

For now, Tiger’s sponsors are sticking by him. Nike and Gatorade have already issued statements of support. Yet these statements were made before the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan. Behind the scenes, one has to imagine that marketing execs at Tiger’s sponsors are now cringing on a daily basis as the stories coming out, true or not, become more sordid. Actions, of course, speak louder than words and it’s pretty clear that all is not well in Tigerville: Nielsen reports that prime-time television and cable ads featuring Tiger have been MIA since news of his alleged ‘transgressions‘ broke. So no matter what Tiger’s sponsors say or don’t say publicly, it’s clear they’re trying to lay low.

Obviously, the current situation notwithstanding, athlete endorsement deals make a lot of sense for many companies. Brands by their very nature come to represent something more than just the products they sell. They come to represent particular values, characteristics, lifestyles. Which is precisely what the most visible professional athletes come to represent. Given this, it’s only natural that brands seek to align themselves with recognizable faces whose values, characteristics and lifestyles are similar to their own.

In the case of Tiger Woods, brands weren’t only aligning themselves with arguably the greatest golfer ever. They were aligning themselves with a man whose high performance on the green was matched by his compelling profile off the green — a man with discipline, grace and professionalism. A private, family man. Somebody you’d welcome as a neighbor, invite to a BBQ or trust to watch your kids. It was this total package that made Tiger a billion-dollar brand. Yet as that brand comes under fire, the companies that aligned themselves with him will have to grapple with the possibility that the public will now associate Tiger with values, characteristics and lifestyle choices that are anything but desirable, and entirely antithetical to those Tiger had represented.

Given the nature of the claims being made right now, it seems highly likely that Tiger’s reputation will be forever blemished, if not completely tarnished. For brands, it remains to be seen whether Tiger’s ability to continue performing spectacularly on the green will be enough to overshadow his problems as a private individual. That’s a difficult question to answer given the amount of money involved. When Tiger was the world’s greatest athlete and the embodiment of the perfect man, it was easy to argue that he really was worth $100m per year to his sponsors. But without the ‘perfect man‘ part, I suspect that many of Tiger’s sponsors may come to the conclusion that ‘world’s greatest athlete‘ isn’t worth what they thought it once was. What they do about that remains to be seen; I suspect Tiger will have far less leverage at the negotiating table with future deals.

But Tigergate is really a lot bigger than Tiger Woods. While scandal is nothing new to this business, we’re not talking about just another disposable athlete that brands can break ties with and forget about. In many ways, Tiger Woods is the business of athlete endorsements. A product of brand marketers, ‘Tiger Woods‘ has been hand-crafted for public consumption even before he teed off professionally for the first time. From that perspective, what Tigergate has done is shattered the notion that brand marketers can take a human being, create the ultimate public persona for commercial purposes and control that human being so flawlessly that the difference between the man and the legend never becomes visible to the public.

The bottom line is that when you put your company’s good name in the hands of any human being, there’s a certain level of inherent risk present. While brands strive to add a human touch for important reasons, there can be too much of a good thing. When an athlete, for instance, becomes so closely aligned with the brand that he essentially becomes the brand, this risk is absolutely huge.

In my opinion, the fact that the most prolific endorser in history has fallen from grace so quickly should give many brand marketers pause going forward when it comes to endorsement deals and the role they should play in overall corporate strategy. While the business of athlete endorsements will survive, I think there will be subtle and important long-term changes. Frankly, that might not be such a bad thing for athletes, brands and consumers alike.

Photo credit: Ethan Bloch via Flickr.