The Phoenix Effect: How to Bounce Back From a PR Disaster, Tiger Woods Style

You can revitalize a fallen brand. The key is to be persistent and follow Tiger Woods' playbook.
Author, Profit First
April 01, 2013

Who will ever forget the Thanksgiving of 2009? We awoke on Friday morning from our turkey-induced slumber to find out that Tiger Woods had crashed his Cadillac into a tree. He was taken to the hospital in “serious condition” and released later that day.

His serious condition got worse, but not in a medical way. That day the Tiger Woods brand, and his golden golf play, started a downward spiral that would last for years. 

The Tiger brand, once that of the clean, humble, in-control, honorable, ultimate competitor was seriously damaged, and in response sponsors fled. Accenture was the first to pull its endorsement, then Gillette. So did countless others.

As his private life eroded in the public eye, Tiger’s dominance on the pro golf circuit also declined, adding fuel to the fire. He had very public fights with his coach, his caddy and his ex-wife. And with each front page story about his affairs, his breakup and his sponsor losses, it looked more and more like the Tiger brand was done. Or was it?

RELATED: The Art of Damage Control: How to Wake up From a PR Nightmare

Three plus years later, Woods is back in a big way and tearing up the pro circuit. He was recently declared the number-one golfer in the world, again. And, with girlfriend and professional Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn on his arm, he's half of the hottest celebrity athlete relationship going.

It’s only fitting that a sponsor who sells the passing of time, Rolex, has just signed Tiger Woods as a spokesperson for its brand.

How can a guy who fell so far, so fast come back from the ashes to dominate golf again? Call it the Phoenix effect—the utterly defeated rising from the ashes of total failure. Tiger uses the same approach any brand or business does, with specific actions steps, relentless persistence and a few strokes of luck. If your business falls, don't give in, remember these steps and you can rise too.

1. Acknowledge your mistakes publicly. To deny is human, to confess divine. It took Tiger a few months after the Thanksgiving incident, but he finally went public with his admission of guilt. When your business makes a major mistake, you need to fess up. And better yet, fess up fast.

2. Dump the old ways. Tiger dumped coaches, caddies and even his swing. If you need to recover your business or brand, it's often easier to “start from scratch.” The only outstanding question is if Tiger has dumped his old “dating method.” Lindsey Vonn is the first indicator that he has. With your business, when things are bad, clean house and start anew. A fresh starting point is much easier to manage than a mix of your bad past and your new future.

3. Rebuild. Tiger started working with a new coach and mastered a new swing. By dumping his old ways, he was able to find a new and better method. Supposedly he has done the same in his personal life, by dumping his “loose” ways and picking a steady, no-nonsense girlfriend. You, too, need to find new vendors, new employees and new ways to build a strong foundation.

RELATED: A Step-By-Step Guide to Apologizing for Your Company's Mistake

4. Pick one thing. Tiger knew that if he was to lead again, he needed to pick one area to dramatically improve his game. He focused on putting. His putting improved so much that he could make up for his random lackluster shots on the fairway. Sure enough, as his short game improved, he started to quickly climb up the ranks again. When repairing your business from disaster, don’t try to master everything at once again. It’s too much to handle. Master one thing. And make the one thing be your most significant competitive advantage.

5. Team up with a superstar. On the branding side, Tiger’s new relationship with Lindsey Vonn couldn’t be more perfect. Recovering bad boy goes steady with superstar good girl? Sweet. The Lindsey fan base became automatic Tiger fans, and existing Tiger fans admire his choice in Lindsey. Nothing can repair your bad brand reputation faster than linking up with an established, trusted brand. If an established brand trusts you, consumers reason, they can trust you. As you recover, seek an ally with a strong brand that you can link with.

There's still one final hurdle that Tiger must overcome, and it's the recent confusion over his new Nike ad. The one that says “Winning takes care of everything.” The truth is, it doesn’t. Time is always required to heal the wounds. In recovering your business, take the action steps listed above, but understand that you must be patient. People don’t forget so easily.

Read more articles on branding.

Photo: Getty Images