Brand Perception is Hurting Smaller Golf Club Brands

Brand Perception is Hurting Smaller Golf Club Brands

What’s the “right” price for a club?

Do you look at something and think “Ugh… they want that much for that?!”?

How about “Whoa- that price is too good to be true- it must be a shitty club!”?

It’s all about brand perception.

Maybe it’s not the club, but your perception about the price that makes you feel a certain way.

There was a recent discussion on Reddit about an unknown putter brand, and to paraphrase (to protect users), it was immediately hit with the “they want that much for it?  It’s not a Scotty or a Betti!” line.

That’s the unfortunate part about it: they’re not Scotty’s or Betti’s… they’re their own brand, and they’re trying to break through in a tough, cut-throat business.  “Golf’s a gentlemen’s (and ladies) game… at least on the course.  It’s more like a crazy independent wrestling circuit away from the fairways and greens.

It really is all about how you perceive price:

  • If that company sells their putters for <$200, they’ll appear to be “cheap”, or an overpriced knockoff.
  • If they sell for >$200, they’ll appear to be in competition with Scotty and Betti, but without the reputation.

There is no “sweet spot” for unknown club brands.  They literally cannot win.  At least, not on a large scale.

I remember a conversation I had with the guys at Axis Putters. I asked them point-blank about the price they were selling them for ($299 at the time).  In a nutshell, that’s the answer they gave me. So, they went with the “premium” price point and tried to do their own thing.

Any independent club OEM will struggle unless they keep their expectations ridiculously low. It’s a brutal business.

You’re automatically deemed “cheap”, or that you’re “just selling cheap Chinese drivers” like they say about Bombtech (even though ALL drivers are made in China and Taiwan).

You’ll have the fear of threatening letters, cease and desist orders and/or litigation from the “big boys” on a seemingly weekly basis- especially if your product starts building a buzz.  The “big boys” don’t even have to be right; they just have to outlast you in court with their deeper pockets, force you out because you spent all your capital on wasted court/lawyer fees.

The thing is, every company had to start somewhere.  They had to build their brand perception from scratch.

Scotty and Bettinardi were relative unknowns who caught a break.

  • Cameron got hired by Ray Cook Golf originally, then went to Mizuno.  He had some mild success, but his breakout came when he went to Titleist
  • Bettinardi wasn’t even making putters when he sought out and got a contract from Callaway to mill someone else’s designs in his machine shop.

That doesn’t take away from their success.  But it does show you that, given the right circumstances, it could’ve been someone else who got to sell their designs with Titleist, or who walked into Callaway and asked- and got- contracted millwork.

Some recent stories that aren’t as pleasant: 

Cleveland Golf started off as a clone company. You can say they made it, though since 2016 they’ve been partnered with Srixon to keep going.  Cleveland makes the putters and wedges, while Srixon makes the rest.  Without that deal, where would they be?

Speaking of Cleveland Golf, their former CEO Greg Hopkins left and has struggled- at best- to bring Hopkins Golf to the top of the scene. I mean, this guy spent 16 years guiding Cleveland to some of their best years, even getting to #2 in iron sales for a time, but he isn’t making it on his own.

Everybody knows Cobra Golf as the fun brand that Rickie Fowler uses. But they were, for the longest time, best known for two things:

  1. Inventor of the Baffler (the hybrid)
  2. Titleist’s black sheep little brother, who was never taken seriously. Even Titleist didn’t take them seriously!

Look at Wilson-Staff. They’ve been in the business the longest of them all (85 years as of this writing!), and their existence the last 30 or so years can be called a roller coaster, at best.  Did you know that, along with Gene Sarazen, they invented the sand wedge, and made the prototype for perimeter-weighted irons?

Perception can be everything

The best golfer in the world (at least in the Modern Era) used a brand that was on par with any other, but they struggled to fight perceptions and possible myths.  Nike, the biggest sports company, gave up on golf clubs and balls because they couldn’t truly break through.

They dealt with rumors of their irons being made by another company.  Miura, to be exact, who themselves admit to making stuff for multiple companies… but they refuse to name names.  Even though every single OEM has done this for years, Nike seemed to catch the most flack for it.

Let’s set the record straight: from the least-known component brand to the most well-known “brand name”, all of their casting work is done in a handful of foundries in China and Taiwan while forgings are done in a handful of forging “houses” in Japan and China.

There are a small number of boutique putter brands that make their stuff in the US.  I consider myself well-versed in OEMs, clones, and all other kinds of golf clubs, and I can’t tell you if there are any wedge, iron, or wood manufacturers that make their stuff here in the States.

Here’s a direct quote from Miura Golf on the subject:

“Many tour players are, and have been, playing Miura made clubs under the brands of other companies and to a more limited extent at this time, under the Miura brand”.

Of all the big players it seemed to hurt Nike the most.  Phil’s “inferior” comment about their clubs haunted them for a very long time, as well- even though Callaway has no room to talk.

The struggle is real

It’s all comes back to brand perception. Lesser-known OEMs struggle because it’s incredibly difficult to break through golfers perception on what a quality brand is- when most of that is through careful manipulation on the big OEM’s part.

Callaway and TMaG have the largest roster of paid staffers- and even some that aren’t professional golfers!  It costs a lot, but they’re getting a solid ROI in perception… and sales.  But does that mean they’re the “best”?

The proverbial elephant- MONEY

Money is a big part of it all.

I can name plenty of companies that make good golf equipment, yet aren’t household names.  Here’s a quick list (in no particular order):

  • Acer
  • Maltby
  • Tom Wishon Golf Technologies
  • AR Golf (putters)
  • Vice (balls)
  • MannKrafted (putters)
  • MG Golf
  • Bradley (putters)
  • Snell (balls)
  • KZG
  • Swing Science
  • Alpha

And there’s plenty more where that came from.

What do all these companies have in common?

  1. Not much money
  2. No real advertising
  3. Great products, but 0 market share

Like I said, it’s brutal.

Now be honest: how many said “who?” to all of the companies I listed?

Most of them just need a chance.  A break.  But who’s gonna give it to them, to take a risk?

I mean, why buy a brand new driver for $250 when you can get one for $500, right?  But wouldn’t you want that new driver to come with a real custom golf club fitting?

Related: Green Lantern Golf’s Custom Fitting Articles!

Their stories aren’t new, and not exclusive to golf.

Bands can play together for years and never get that break.  Artists can paint personal masterpieces and never get their break.  Designers can make clothes without ever getting the chance to work for companies like Vera Wang or Ralph Lauren.

But how many of those designers and artists have to actively worry about being shut down by the field they’re trying to get into?

Counterpoint

I get IP protection.  Honestly, I do.  But when almost everyone and their brother is outsourcing their stuff, suing can’t possibly be the only answer for protection.

If they’re so worried about their gear getting ripped off, why don’t they take more control over the process?  Instead of just being a marketing and R&D company, go back to the old days and actually make the stuff you’re selling!  Or, maybe hire someone to stay in the area of the foundries, to oversee/enforce the process?

Seriously; they have enough cash to pay pros $100 million contracts, but not to protect their IP?

Maybe I’m being naive, which is the usual case (I’m a hopeless optimistic), but shouldn’t these companies be trying to help each other?  If their product truly is the best, people will still buy.  If not, maybe they’ll be forced into true innovation- or go under.

To me, it just seems that certain companies got to the top, and are just going about forcibly protecting maintaining that spot.  Not through anything real, but through the courts.  The easy way… since they have the money to walk that route.

Break down the barrier of perception

Buying brand-new golf clubs can be expensive.  $500 for a driver, $1000 for an iron set.  $150 for a wedge.  Golf clubs can put a strain on the wallet, for sure… depending on where you look.

One of golf’s biggest problems is cost.  People look for alternative methods to lighten the burden on their wallets.  It’s understandable.

But these lesser-known brands, they offer the same benefits that the name brands do.  Sure, they can be more expensive, but if you play your cards right, they can be very wallet-friendly.

All they need is a chance.

Further Reading:

 

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