How golf brands convince golfers to buy the same gear year after year
Or “How golfers can be convinced of anything if it will lower their handicap.”
If I was to ask you about the brands that are the most accomplished marketers in the world right now, I’d probably get a bunch of different answers.
Some would suggest Apple. Some would bring up Nike. Some of the classic Unilevers or Proctor & Gambles. Some might even suggest the likes of Tesla, Coinbase or another tech darling.
All of those answers are valid in one way or another. But I put it to you that a case can be made for another set of brands. One that convinces millions of people globally to replace products with new ones every year that have few tangible benefits. One that is limited by regulations that restrict meaningful innovation. One that uses fascinating behavioural science techniques to nudge customers to buy.
Who might I be talking about?
Well, the answer is golf equipment manufacturers. The likes of Callaway, Titleist, Taylor Made, Cobra, Ping and Mizuno.
Golf is big business
The golf equipment global market is predicted to be worth c. $9.3bn by 2026 according to Statista. Golf clubs make up roughly 45% of that revenue and it is the most intriguing part of the market.
Balls, tees, shoes and apparel are all perishable to a greater or lesser degree and need to be bought regularly.
But clubs? Well they aren’t perishable — unless you snap one over your knee after an awful shot. And despite what the golf equipment manufacturers would have you believe, golf club performance as measured by distance, forgiveness (the ability of a ball to still travel well after an off-centre hit on the clubface) and accuracy do not improve year on year.
Or if they do, those differences are so statistically small that you’d need to hit thousands of shots with immaculate consistency to see them. For example, check out this test in Today’s Golfer showing parity when looking year on year: https://www.todaysgolfer.co.uk/features/equipment-features/2018/june/tested-old-vs-new-drivers/ or this video from YouTuber Mark Crossfield: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nh1tunNWvMY
The traditional and customary form
The reason for this lack of dramatic annual improvement centres around the tight restrictions on equipment that the governing bodies of the game, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the Royal & Ancient (The R&A), jointly set.
Their job is to manage, enforce and update the rules of golf from the professional game to the lowliest of amateurs. Part of those rules covers the equipment that golfers can use in competition. Here is their stated aim:
While not wishing to stifle innovation, the purpose of the Equipment Rules is to protect the traditions of the game, to prevent an over-reliance on technological advances rather than on practice and skill, and to preserve skill differentials throughout the game.
Source: The R & A
So in practice what does that mean? Well a club cannot have multiple shafts or heads, no part of the golf club should be designed to move, and there are restrictions on head size (the bit you try and hit the ball with) and length of the club.
For example, the maximum head volume of a Driver (likely the most expensive club in a golfers bag) cannot exceed 460cc and its length cannot exceed 48 inches. They even restrict the thickness of the club face.
All to ensure that a good shot is down primarily to the player, not the equipment.
Whilst equipment manufacturers could likely create clubs that would allow pros and amateurs to have a much easier time of it on the golf course, they don’t manufacture equipment outside of the regulations. And most amateur golfers wouldn’t play non-conforming clubs, outside of maybe some recreational rounds that don’t count to a handicap anyway.
There aren’t many other industries where innovation is regulated so closely. Whilst the EU may force Apple to adopt USB-C charging, no one is saying that their phones must be a certain size or weight. No one is telling Nike that their t-shirts must be made from cotton and be a specific size.
Playing with a handicap
Because of these regulations, a pillar of brand growth has been removed — the ability to create truly seismic changes in performance for a golfer.
So what do golf club manufacturers do? Well, they still have plenty of tricks up their sleeve — most of which are traditional (lots of TV ads during TV golf coverage, sponsorship of events, digital advertising, etc). But they also rely on some powerful behavioural science principles to reinforce their marketing plans.
1. Using Social Proof
As we all know from Professor Byron Sharp, a key driver (excuse the pun) of brand growth is creating Mental Availability — the likelihood that a buyer will notice, recognize and/or think of a brand in buying situations.
Fundamentally therefore it is about memory and the need to build and reinforce brand-linked memory structures that make the brand easier to notice and buy.
One of the ways to do that is by utilising a Behavioural Science technique called Social proof.
Social proof describes the tendency of people to look to the actions of others to gain psychological permission to try something new or when deciding what decision to make.
It can be broken down further into a couple of pots:
- Similar Others — Proof that people we admire, identify with, or are part of our community are using a product or doing something
- Many Others — Proof that lots of people are using a product
Both of these apply and in fact, one drives the other.
Golf club manufacturers take advantage of Similar Others by signing up top Professional players to exclusively play their gear. Taylor Made has Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, and Charley Hull. Callaway has John Rahm, Xander Schauffele and Georgia Hall. Titleist has Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Nelly Korda.
Now clearly, by simply displaying their brand affiliation through clothing, golf bag and equipment, golfers act like mobile billboards in person and on broadcasts. This slowly builds familiarity using the Mere exposure effect.
But golf is an equipment-heavy sport and most golfers have specific preferences. So by playing a brand’s equipment (and ideally succeeding), it sends some simple social proof messages:
- If it's good enough for a top professional, it’s plenty good enough for a mid-handicapper amateur.
- That a player (who we know is picky. All pros are — this is their livelihood after all.) chose a specific brand lends an endorsement to that brand's quality
- That maybe, by playing the same clubs, a little bit of that players success will rub off on them should they win tournaments (or ideally one of the Majors). To quote Lee Iacocca from the movie ‘Le Mans 66’:
“Enzo Ferrari will go down in history as the greatest car manufacturer of all time. Why? Is it because he built the most cars? No, it’s because of what his cars mean: victory. Ferrari wins at Le Mans! And people, they — they they want some of that victory.”
Now people are not daft. They know that a player will have been paid to play a brand but that player could have chosen any of the golf brands and chose that one specifically so these messages hold true.
The off-shoot of this is that amateur golfers buy the new gear they see pros play with, play with other amateurs, and talk about their clubs. The more visible new clubs become on courses worldwide, the more people think that club is effective and the more they look to buy that brand.
That can be amplified through distinctivenes.
One of the things Taylor Made, Nike (when they made clubs) and to a lesser degree Cobra and Mizuno, have done is create drivers and fairway woods that a highly distinctive visually. Most clubs in that class are black.
Maybe Matte black if you’re feeling fancy.
But just look at some of the colours in the image below. All these clubs are from top brands and all bucked the trend to create a visual that is highly distinctive on the course, and on television in the hands of pros.
Suddenly people are asking “What was that red driver Tiger was playing with?” and the manufacturer has won half the battle.
2. They fan the flames of GAS
GAS in this context stands for ‘Gear Acquisition Syndrome’ and it makes its presence known in both creative and sporting endeavours where equipment is a huge part of the activity.
You hear about it with guitar players buying lots of guitars, effects pedals and amps. You see it in cycling, fishing, photography, and of course golf.
GAS is a mildly compulsive urge for more and better gear. There’s a dopamine fuelled happiness that comes from simply making the purchase of course but what is at its root is a realisation that getting better at something is hard and takes time.
Getting better is hard
Pretty much all golfers want to win — whether a competition, against their mates or even against their own best score. They also want to get better — they want the fabled single-figure handicap.
And deep down ALL golfers know that major improvements in their game and their scores come from themselves. It comes from taking lessons and finding the time to practise what those lessons suggest.
It takes hours and repetition and visualisation and hard work.
But what if there was a shortcut? A magic piece of equipment that could give you 20 more yards off the tee, stop your wild slice or help you hole every putt?
What if you didn’t need all that effort for which you maybe don’t have the time in your life or for which you are honestly too lazy?
That is why Golf club manufacturers continue to promote ‘innovations’ that every year promise more than the last. Here’s is the latest nonsense that accompanies Taylor Made’s Stealth drivers for example:
The future of driver performance begins with our 60x Carbon Twist Face — comprised of 60 layers of carbon sheets strategically arranged for better energy transfer and faster ball speeds across a large area of the face.
Our 20-year journey to change the face of golf was made possible by an innovative nanotexture cover, which creates the face texture needed for the ideal amount of friction at impact. Polyurethane covers the entire face to fine tune launch and spin, optimizing total distance in all playing conditions.
Say what now?
If the golf club brand’s claims on performance were true the average amateur golfer should be hitting their drivers 400 yards. Instead, the playing average is 225 yards according to ShotScope.
But the never ending promises of shortcuts to improved performance by buying new gear from the manufacturers give the golfers GAS to burn.
But isn’t prodigious length a problem in the pro game?
Supporting this idea that technology is driving performance comes from the world of the pro game.
Distance off the tee is a huge benefit when gaining shots over the competition — the closer you are to the green, the shorter your next shot and, most likely, the greater your chance of leaving the hole with a score better than your competitors.
As a result, driving distances in the pro game have gone inexorably up over the last few years. In 2021 the average driving distance on the PGA Tour was 297.3 yards — an increase of 12 yards since 2003.
The prodigious length of players like Rory McIlroy (321.3 Yards Average [YA]), John Rahm (318.9 YA), and Cameron Champ (321.4 YA) have been the talk of golf for some time now. The Distance Insights Report from the PGA in 2021 discusses how growth in distances hit is detrimental to the game in general.
Now technology has, over the last 30 years or so, definitely contributed. New materials like titanium and carbon in golf club heads and shafts, bigger, more forgiving heads, and other innovations have made drivers longer and more forgiving to off-centre hits.
The issue is that amateur golfers give too much credence to the idea technology is the cause of this length increase. And if you were a manufacturer you wouldn’t want to disavow potential buyers of that notion…
However, the real increase has come from the players themselves. Improved understanding of the golf swing, biomechanics, fitness, nutrition and training has created disciplined athletes compared to players from the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Add to that improved data exploding myths on what creates great scores — that distance correlates with better scores versus fairways hit for example.
The poster boy for all of this is Bryson DeChambeau who added 20–30 pounds of (mostly) muscle and increased his driving distance by over 20 yards (+20.5) from 302.5 to 323 to in 2020. That ultimately led to more wins including a Major — the US Open at Winged Foot in that same year.
But as discussed amateurs don’t want to go to the lengths of Bryson to get better. They will choose the easier path and the media narrative of technology driving improvements plays into the idea of GAS.
3. Creating a bespoke experience.
The one-time getting new equipment can create a huge difference in your game comes from having your clubs fitted to you and your swing. Going from a set of clubs you picked off the shelf because Rory plays them versus getting the right clubs for your swing speed, height, and ability can be dramatic:
GolfTec, a regular on Golf Digest’s list of America’s Top 100 Best Clubfitters, found the following average improvements in ball speed, distance and dispersion (i.e. accuracy) from their customers after one of their fittings:
Ball speed — 3.9 mph faster with Driver, 6.8 mph faster with irons
Distance — 20.6 yards farther with Driver, 17 yards farther with irons
Direction — 7.9 yards straighter with Driver, 4.2 yards straighter with irons.
So if a manufacturer can get a golfer to go from unfitted to fit and select their clubs to get fitted into, the golfer will also associate that improvement to their chosen brand of clubs too.
Once convinced of the value of fitting it becomes a challenge of Mental and Physical availability for those brands.
Physical availability is essentially how easy your brand is to find and buy. In order to maximise the physical availability of a fitting process, every major manufacturer now has fitting networks — from wholly owned, fully branded centres, to affiliated independent fitters and finally to golf club pro shops.
Add to that the fitting process that happens through retailers (a relatively new phenomenon) and there have never been more places to get fit.
The key for manufacturers is to ensure they are present in clubs with smaller pro shops or smaller fitters. The course at which I am a member only fits for Titleist, Taylor Made, Callaway and Mizuno. Want a Cobra driver? You’re out of luck.
The best ability is availability after all.
This relates back to the fitting process. There is so much choice out there, that a lot of fitters will use the customer's preferred brands (sometimes driven by budget) to determine where to start their fit.
If a manufacturers brand is not mentally available then you are relying on the fitter to remember them and suggest them which is risky,
That is why brands spend a lot of money talking to fitters and club pros, explaining new ‘innovations’, providing detailed fitting guides for their latest products and setting up fitting days at golf clubs around the country.
They know they need a pincer movement — mental availability from both fitters and customers — to maximise their chances.
The Back Nine
In a world built on tradition, rules and regulations that stifle truly game-changing technology, Golf club brands have found ways to create marketing plans that keep millions of golfers changing their clubs each year for little actual perceived benefit on the course.
It's hugely impressive.
However, there is potential for the tide to start turning with more and more Golf influencers on YouTube debunking some of the claims made by manufacturers (people like the aforementioned Mark Crossfield, Coach Lockey, MyGolfSpy, and Rick Shiels). Especially those with ball monitoring equipment like TrackMan who can produce their own data on club testing.
It’s going to be interesting to see whether brands change their tactics in the face of this but for now, golfers will keep buying in the never-ending search for the perfect 18 holes.
I am a Senior Marketing Consultant with over 20 years of experience across both client and agency-side specialising in CRM, CX and Loyalty. I have applied my knowledge across brands as diverse as Vodafone, McDonald’s, Volkswagen, Westpac, and GAME.
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